Updates to the 1987 Kootenai National Forest Plan restrict over-snow use on recommended wilderness land, which cuts the percentage of the 2.2-million acre forest that permits motorized recreation from 88 to 86 percent.
When Faye L. Krueger, the USDA Forest Service Northern Region regional forester, issued in January her Final Record of Decision, she removed recommended wilderness status from 15,600 national forest acres and imposed it on approximately 42,200 new acres of land. Recommended wilderness is a designation for areas that have been recommended to Congress for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System but are not yet considered Wilderness Areas and do not share wilderness protections and restrictions.
In the decision, Krueger also prohibited motorized and mechanized usage on the recommended wilderness lands, a controversial move.
Several organizations have filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Kootenai National Forest, contending that the denial of over-snow usage is not a classic protection afforded by the recommended wilderness designation.
“I am making the site-specific decision to restrict over-snow vehicle and mechanized use within recommended wilderness,” Krueger wrote in the record of decision, “because these uses impact wilderness character and, over time, could potentially lead to these areas no longer being suitable for wilderness designation … the Forest’s analysis of over-snow use examines how this activity is incompatible with more primitive activities and the opportunity for solitude associated with wilderness character.”
The land newly open for over-snow motorized use this season is scattered around the forest in parcels, and includes the McGuire Mountain Lookout area southwest of Eureka. Of the 290 miles of winter trails in the forest, 250 will be groomed through the upcoming season. The lands are maintained and groomed by four local snowmobile clubs.
Much of the newly restricted land – 23,500 acres – is near Roderick Mountain in the Yaak, which KNF Recreation Manager Mary Laws says isn’t easy to access and wasn’t among the forest’s more popular areas for snowmobiling.
The record of decision’s other closures cover new portions of the Scotchman Peaks, parts of which have had motorized and mechanized closure orders since 2001 and extend into the Idaho Panhandle National Forest with similar usage restrictions, as well as a small addition of recommended wilderness lands to the existing Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
“There is a small part of the Scotchmans, the northwest portion, that gets used by snowmobilers,” said Todd Butts, a biological consultant from Eureka and a member of the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “And I don’t think Roderick is of real value to [snowmobilers, but] the [Cabinet] additions are losses for snowmobilers. You could ride into some beautiful basins.”
Butts said that limiting motorized use on recommended lands is not necessary to preserve the lands’ wilderness character before Congress weighs in on a possible wilderness distinction.
“The landscape is kind of like a chalkboard – every time it snows, a giant eraser comes and resets it to zero,” Butts said. “You can’t tell if there were 100 or 1,000 snowmobilers. Usage does not equal wilderness character.”
“[Roderick and the Cabinet additions] clearly do not meet the definition of wilderness,” he continued. “You’re adding areas with roads, where there was mining and timber harvesting. I like my wilderness to meet the definition of wilderness, and if it doesn’t meet the definition, the uses should remain.”
As Butts sees it, the real issue here is the plan to manage the new recommended wilderness lands as if Congress had already approved the stricter wilderness designation. He is worried about the Forest Service’s interpretation of the rules and what precedent will be set “if we start cheating here, managing land as wilderness without the consent of Congress. Until such time as Congress says yay or nay, it’s not wilderness. Existing uses should remain until such time.”
Kruger wrote that while she recognizes “that motorized and mechanized recreation users also desire remote recreation areas that allow them the opportunity for exploration, solitude, risk, challenge, and primitive recreation via their recreation vehicle of choice similar to non-motorized recreationists… recommendation and potential Congressional designation of lands for wilderness will necessarily result in losses of other opportunities such as snowmobiling.”
Ed. note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 423,400 new acres of land received recommended wilderness status in the Jan. 2015 Record of Decision, instead of 42,200.
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