Judge orders USFS to create rules for snowmobile use

Publish Date: 
Apr 2, 2013
By Holly J. Wagner

BOISE, Idaho – A federal judge has ordered the United States Forest Service (USFS) to create rules within the next six months governing snowmobile use in national forests.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Bush on March 28 found in favor of the Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA), an Idaho-based advocacy group for non-motorized snow recreation, which contended the USFS Travel Management Plan, issued in 2005, governed off-road vehicle but not snowmobile use in the national forests.

Bush’s ruling directs USFS to craft rules within 180 days of the March 29 judgment.

Before 2005, USFS managed off-road vehicles more at arm’s length, with a policy known as “open unless posted closed.” 

The rule was crafted after then-Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth said unmanaged recreation, especially impacts from off-highway vehicles, was a key threat to the nation’s forests, in part due to an “enormous increase” in off-highway vehicle use under the previous policy. The executive orders directing the USFS to manage off-road vehicles were created in the Nixon and Carter administrations.

The 2005 plan created rules for other off-road vehicles; however, USFS focused on summer use vehicles, stating that snowmobiles were exempt from the travel plan requirement because “traveling over snow results in different and less severe impacts to natural resource values than wheeled motor vehicles traveling over the ground . . . [and] it may be appropriate for snowmobiles to travel off route.” Individual forest managers had the power to limit snowmobile access.

WWA sued the USFS. Off-road advocacy groups BlueRibbon Coalition, the Idaho Snowmobile Association and the American Council of Snowmobile Associations later joined the case on USFS’ side. WWA, USFS and the intervenors each asked the judge to find in their favor and dismiss the case without a trial; WWA argued USFS did not have the authority to exempt snowmobiles, and won.

“In sum, the Court finds the OSV [over-snow vehicle] exemption is contrary to law, specifically Executive Order[s] … because Executive Order 11644 requires an agency to promulgate regulations that provide for designation of areas of use and non-use by off-road vehicles, including over-snow vehicles, on all public lands,” Bush wrote in his decision. “By exempting OSVs from the 2005 rule and purporting to make discretionary the threshold question of whether to designate the areas of use or non-use by OSVs, the Forest Service has not reasonably applied Executive Order 11644 in its promulgation of the 2005 rule, or in its denial of WWA’s petition to amend” the rule.