Our National Forests – Why are there so many closed signs?

Our national forests may not be as wide open to snowmobile recreation as some of the extreme organizations tout they are on a daily basis. You may be surprised to find out how many acres are actually closed to snowmobiling; a sport which is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of mechanical recreation that exists in our national forests. After all, when the snow melts, so do the temporary tracks we leave behind in the snow.

Most of you are aware that approximately 106 million acres of current designated wilderness in the United States is already permanently off limits to snowmobile use and all other forms of motorized and mechanical recreation. Are you also aware of the many other designated areas in our national forests that are either already closed to snowmobiling, or could be closed to snowmobiling in the near future? There are Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWA), Research Natural Areas (RNA), etc.

Let me try and clarify what some of these designations mean. Below is what the Forest Service recently explained regarding the difference between WSAÔÇÖs and RWAÔÇÖs:

ÔÇ£Any wilderness recommendation for forests west of the 100th meridian, resulting through the forest planning process, are referred to as “recommended wilderness” (for Congress); and any wilderness recommended for forests east of the 100th meridian, resulting through the forest planning process, are referred to as recommended areas for “wilderness study” (by Congress) ÔÇô the difference is a result of the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act. The other wilderness study areas are those areas specifically designated by Congress. The agency is directed in an act from Congress and signed by the President to study an area for wilderness potential, and make a recommendation to Congress.┬á This direction is typically found in a wilderness bill, where a wilderness designation is being made – Congress decides it wants us to evaluate thoroughly some other lands that they believe may have wilderness potential.┬á Recommended wilderness, on the other hand, are typically those areas that we have identified through the forest land and resource management planning process, in the official “Record of Decision,” to recommend for wilderness consideration by CongressÔÇØ.

In short, the difference between WSAÔÇÖs and RWAÔÇÖs comes down to who is recommending it be considered for wilderness, Congress (WSAÔÇÖs) or the Forest Service (RWAÔÇÖs). The Forest Service manages nearly 34.9 million acres (32%) of the 106 million acres of designated wilderness (1). They also manage more than 4.2 million acres of RWAÔÇÖs (2), nearly 2.6 million acres of WSAÔÇÖs, and more than 400,000 acres of RNAÔÇÖs (3). Also donÔÇÖt forget about the millions of acres of so called Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA) that President Clinton attempted to close to the majority of the public. Many western state Governors and the Forest Service are trying to close these very same areas. Several western state Governors have even petitioned the Department of Agriculture (DOA) to invoke ClintonÔÇÖs previous roadless rule. The Forest Service is also recommending many of these IRAÔÇÖs for RWAÔÇÖs during their forest plan revisions.

The Region 1 (encompassing Montana and northern Idaho) Forester, Abigail Kimbell, has been promoting the closure of RWAÔÇÖs to motorized use throughout Montana, and now northern Idaho for no apparent reason. Recent conversations with the Forest Service in Region 6 (Washington and Oregon) lead me to believe that they are planning on closing all newly designated RWAÔÇÖs to motorized use too. This practice needs to stop immediately. The Forest Service is only required by law to ÔÇ£protect wilderness characterÔÇØ within RWAÔÇÖs. This does not mean that these areas should be closed to motorized use if the ÔÇ£wilderness characterÔÇØ can still be protected. No areas should be closed to snowmobiles and managed as wilderness unless Congress votes to do so.┬áSnowmobiles do not impact ÔÇ£wilderness characterÔÇØ nor do they damage the resource. No scientific evidence exists proving otherwise.┬á

The Snowmobile Alliance of Western States can live with the previous decisions in past decades by Congress who voted to designate wilderness areas through the Wilderness Act of 1964 (4) ÔÇ£as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remainÔÇØ. We also advocate respecting all existing wilderness boundaries and not violating the rules by entering these existing wilderness areas by means of any mechanical form of transportation. What we do not support are new wilderness designations. Many of these new proposals contain land that does not even come close to qualifying as wilderness per the definition defined in the Wilderness Act. This act also states; ÔÇ£There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such areaÔÇØ. Some of the recent wilderness proposals, such as the Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington State, contain areas that do not meet this requirement. SAWS also feels that sufficient areas have already been closed to multiple-use so we will not support further closures without valid scientific reasons.

The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (5) declares, ÔÇ£That the purposes of the national forest include outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed and fish and wildlifeÔÇØ. If the Forest Service is no longer going to manage our national forests for these mandated purposes is there really a need for this agency to exist under the Department of Agriculture, or exist under any department at all for that matter?

The National Visitor Use Monitoring Program (NVUM) (6) documents that very few forest visitors actually visit existing wilderness areas, so why is the Forest Service bent on creating more wilderness areas? The NVUM web site documents that only 3.5% of current national forest visits nationwide are to existing wilderness areas. It certainly doesnÔÇÖt seem like there is a great need to create more de-facto wilderness through more RWAÔÇÖs or WSAÔÇÖs, for 3.5% of the national forest visitors who choose to visit current wilderness areas.

So when you get right down to it, how much of our national forest lands are really open and available for snowmobile use? Not nearly the amount some people would like the general public to believe.

Dave Hurwitz
Snowmobile Alliance of Western States


(1) – http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=manageFS
(2) – http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us/documents/feis/documents/vol1/appenda.pdf
(3) – http://rna.nris.state.mt.us/rna_about.html
(4) – http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=legisact
(5) – http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/includes/musya60.pdf

(6) – http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/nvum/national_report_final_draft.pdf