This past weekend drew hundreds of snowmobilers just itching for a ride in soft white powder to Haugan, Montana for the Fifth Snow Boss Snocross Race. Hundreds of spectators watched professional racers take on hairpin turns, high jumps and wicked ditches, all with their high-tech race sleds growling across the track-an event that snowmobilers say will get you hooked, once you try it.
And maybe it's just that cross-country skiers, snowshoers and wilderness advocates haven't tried snowmobiling yet, but some quiet outdoor adventurers cry foul whenever snowmobilers head into remote areas, or lobby for more trails. Just the presence of snowmobiles will keep some winter sporters away-for good.
According to a study conducted four years ago by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at UM's School of Forestry, 74 percent of cross-country skiers do not think snowmobiling is compatible with skiing, and 87 percent of snowmobilers say the same about skiing. "Years ago, you often heard snowmobilers say that they welcomed cross-country skiers," says Stephen McCool, co-author of the study. "Now snowmobilers see cross-country skiers as a threat to their activities."
According to the Montana Wilderness Association, the real threat is increased motorized use, which causes skiers to abandon the trails. "It really displaces other users," says John Adams of the Montana Wilderness Association. "Skiers or snowboarders are not going to go there if there are snowmobiles."
And those folks who want to see more wilderness are worried that snowmobilers are chasing away even the prospect of a wilderness designation. "It is an unfounded myth that snowmobiles don't have an impact," Adams says. "Congress is loathe to designate areas that have had motorized uses. If you think wilderness is vital to the future of Montana, then that is a real problem."
Better technology, meanwhile, has brought snowmobilers out for longer seasons and to more remote areas. Since snowmobiles are lighter, faster and safer, snowmobilers can now head for almost any hills they want. And they can continue riding even when snowcover is limited.
But snowmobilers argue that they have zero impact on the environment. "Unlike horses, hikers and ATVs, we do not damage the environment, because when the snow melts, our tracks are gone," says Alan Brown, president of the 6,000-member Montana Snowmobile Association. "Where we snowmobile, there is no wildlife. The snow is deep and the animals have left and gone to lower country."
So it is particularly perturbing to Brown and other snowmobilers that the Forest Service recently closed 400,000 acres of Lolo National Forest to motorized use-an area that snowmobilers have had access to for years. In turn, on January 13, the Montana Snowmobile Association filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service. "These are areas that have been open forever and are now closed," Brown says. "We want the Forest Service to complete their own process: To either reopen these areas on a permanent basis or close them properly."
Whether those areas were closed "properly" is the rub. Both the Forest Service and the Montana Wilderness Association say that the Lolo Forest Plan, released in 1986, prohibits motorized uses in the 400,000 acres in question. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Forest Service has not enforced that ban until now. "We didn't do it because back then use was virtually nonexistent," says Marcia Hogan of the Forest Service. "It was not an area people were consistently and regularly using and we did not want to apply unnecessary restrictions."
Hogan also says that the Forest Service expected Congress to pass a wilderness bill that would have automatically limited motorized use. It was not an unfounded expectation-every year since 1986 a wilderness bill has been introduced into Congress. "So while the forest plan reflected no motorized use, the travel maps did not show these areas as closed," Hogan says.
It was a non-issue until snowmobilers purchased bigger, badder machines that could travel into those remote areas. "Our estimate is that 10 percent of those areas recommended for wilderness are being used regularly by snowmobilers, and it began to occur in the '90s," says Hogan.
The Forest Service's decision, after completing the public input process and a 100-page environmental analysis, was to continue following the 1986 Forest Plan-and close the 400,000 acres. But the Forest Service did not complete an environmental impact statement, which the Montana Snowmobile Association is now demanding.
With all the bickering between snowmobilers and quieter winter sporters, it seems another document from the Forest Service is hardly going to change the fiery debate. According to McCool, from UM's School of Forestry, the conflict is only going to be resolved when everyone involved gets together and discusses the issue. "The issue is a lot more complex than what we might first see," says McCool. "We often don't devote enough personnel to resolving conflict and building discussions into the planning process. Science is very important, but public participation and engaging users is also very important."
He also speculates that this conflict is largely a result of scarcity of trails-whether real or perceived-by both snowmobilers and skiers. The Montana Snowmobile Association says less than 25 percent of Lolo National Forest is open to snowmobiling, while the Montana Wilderness Association says that figure is more like 60 percent. Hogan of the Forest Service just laughs, saying, "The real number is probably somewhere in the middle."