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Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) is a national nonprofit organization promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports experience on public lands. For years the WWA has worked to see that snowmobiles play by the same rules as other off-road vehicles on our public lands. On June 18th, the Forest Service (USFS) issued a long-awaited rule for public comment that is a good first step, but comments from the backcountry community can make it stronger. Your help is both needed and essential to capitalize on this opportunity to bring balance to the backcountry.

About The Issue 

Last April the WWA won a historic victory when a Federal Court agreed with their claim that the USFS has an obligation to manage snowmobiles under the same guidelines used for all other off-road vehicles in other seasons. The court ruled that the exemption of over-snow vehicles (OSVs) in the 2005 Travel Management Rule was unlawful and it directed the Agency to develop a new rule outlining the process under which each national forest will create a winter travel plan to complement their existing summer travel management plans. This new Over-Snow Vehicle Travel Rule (OSV Rule) is a huge opportunity to protect winter ecosystems.

However, the proposed rule  falls short of its potential, and the voices of those who love the backcountry will be crucial if the USFS is going to get it right. Stakeholders have until August 4 to comment on the draft. The WWA hopes to rally at least 1,000 backcountry and Nordic skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and winter mountaineers to weigh in with unique comments to ensure the USFS finalizes a rule that meets its obligation to minimize the impacts of winter motorized use.

The draft says each national forest must now take a proactive approach to designating appropriate trails and areas for winter motorized use as either open or closed, or with certain restrictions (like dates or a minimum snow depth). Forests that have previously completed comprehensive winter travel plans also would not have to redo them. Both of these aspects of the rule are great, but the draft is also problematic.

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The draft would allow individual national forest units to choose either an ‘open unless designated closed’ approach or the opposite ‘closed unless designated open’ approach, as is the case with all other off-road vehicles in all other seasons. This element of the draft is inconsistent, and would be confusing on the ground. The draft also appears to grandfather in past decisions about over-snow vehicle use, regardless of whether they were comprehensive, minimized conflict and resource damage, or involved the public. Administrative decisions that did not allow stakeholder involvement, or that apply to only part of a forest, should not be allowed to pass for proper planning.

Also, the rule proposes to change the definition of an “area” to include landscapes even broader than a Ranger District, with groomed trails in that area not subject to analysis. Groomed trails concentrate use, and cross-country snowmobile travel, while certainly appropriate in some places, also has impacts. Both of these deserve a harder look than is possible when designating areas that could be hundreds of thousands of acres as the draft proposes.

The USFS needs to hear from all winter backcountry users about how management of public lands has the potential to improve your experience on national forest lands — or how a lack of management has degraded your experience.

To make your voice heard  please visit this link and take a few minutes so your perspective counts. 

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Personal comments are proven to make the biggest difference to decision-makers — so please take a few minutes to weigh in on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to impact how the backcountry is managed.

Once the public comment period closes the USFS will analyze all comments and will issue a final rule no later than September 9, 2014 as directed by the court. After the final rule is released the USFS will issue guidance and a schedule for developing individual winter travel plans on national forests.

The draft rule can be viewed online here.

For questions on the draft rule, or help writing comments please contact:

Hilary Eisen
Recreation Planning Coordinator
heisen@winterwildlands.org

The management of winter motorized use impacts every backcountry place we love. Some find their passion with the help of motorized equipment, others do not. Some use both, but all parties should be respected. This is one of the most important bills for backcountry users in decades as this rule sets the course for human-powered winter recreation for years to come.

Make your voice count!

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All photos taken while snow camping and ski touring in the Chugach National Forest