Flathead Forest Reviews Motorized Access Rules

Revisions could lift access restrictions for snowmobiles and other motorized use on 12,000 acres while closing other recommended wilderness areas

By Tristan Scott
The forests and mountains of the North Fork on Oct. 27, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Officials with the Flathead National Forest are seeking the public’s input as they make revisions to the 2018 forest plan, identifying areas of recommended wilderness that could be opened to snowmobile use and other motorized activities, while offsetting the loosened restrictions with prohibitions in other areas.

Forest officials say the proposed changes could result in an increase in access for snowmobiles and other motorized use on 12,759 acres across the 2.4-million acre forest, while limiting access to 12,234 acres.

The balancing act is part of a directive issued when the sprawling revisions to the land management plan were signed on Dec. 24, 2018, requiring the agency “initiate site-specific planning … within 3 years from the date of this decision where an existing order may need to be changed (e.g., changes to snowmobile use per the current over-snow vehicle motor vehicle use map) or where an order may need to be issued, (e.g., to prohibit mechanized transport).”

Forest officials have released the proposed action for public comment, which is due by Feb. 22. The proposed action and corresponding maps can be accessed at the Flathead National Forest’s website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61460.

The Flathead National Forest’s footprint includes the Whitefish Range, the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains, and agency officials are engaged in a constant juggling act to balance priorities like recreation, timber, fire, resource conservation, safety, and education.

The 2018 Forest Plan (implemented in 2019) replaced the 1986 plan, updating the U.S. Forest Service’s long-term strategic vision for managing the network of lands in Northwest Montana. The Flathead Forest Plan is the second in the nation to use the Forest Service’s 2012 Land Management Planning Rule, which facilitates goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in promoting sound land stewardship in partnership with communities.

Among its many proposals, the forest plan recommended new land for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, including the Jewel Basin, the Tuchuck-Whale areas and additions to the Mission Mountain, Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas.

When a forest plan identifies an area as not suitable for an activity, such as mechanized activities like mountain biking or motorized use like snowmobiling, the plan has no immediate effect on the public. This is because changes in suitability allocations in the forest plan are programmatic in nature and do not change any site-specific public uses until second-tiered, site-specific planning takes place, according to forest officials.

“This proposed action will not be re-visiting the decisions the forest plan made regarding the selection of recommended wilderness areas or which areas are suitable or unsuitable for motorized over-snow vehicle use,” according to Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele. “Instead, this analysis will focus on evaluating the site-specific effects of prohibiting or designating (allowing) certain uses and activities only within those areas.”

The project proposes to update the motorized over-snow vehicle use map to designate or prohibit motorized over-snow use in those areas where the 2018 Forest Plan made changes in motorized over-snow vehicle use suitability; prohibit motorized use and mechanized transport in recommended wilderness areas by issuing a long-term forest closure order; and clarify the forest plan direction in recommended wilderness related to mechanized and motorized uses for administrative purposes.

Currently, within the 190,403 acres of recommended wilderness areas, approximately 96 miles of trail allow mechanized transport and 383 acres allow over-snow motorized use. 

“This proposal would evaluate the effects of prohibiting the public from mechanized transport and over-snow motorized use in these areas,” according to Steele.

Additionally, during the review of the suitability components for recommended wilderness areas, the Forest Service identified conflicting language in a couple of the suitability components not related to public uses. To address these conflicts, this project will propose an amendment to clarify direction for administrative use of motorized use/mechanized transport in recommended wilderness.

For a complete description of proposals, maps, and information on how to comment, please visit the project webpage at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61460. If you do not have any site-specific comments at this time but would like to get updates on the project you can send your contact information to comments-northern-flathead@usda.gov.

Members of the public with questions or who need further information should contact Michele Draggoo at michele.draggoo@usda.gov or (406)758-5269.

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