ORBA Winter Travel Planning Process – The Next Steps

By Scott Jones, CSA VP​

US Forest Service recently closed the public comment period for the revised winter travel management rule

As most of you are aware the US Forest Service recently closed the public comment period for the revised winter travel management rule. The rule has been supported by CSA, as the rule seeks to carry forward existing travel management decisions that have been made and specifically recognizes that winter open areas are common in the Western United States and may be very large. The Rule requires all forests to publish travel maps, similar to the summer MVUMs we are familiar with, based on existing decisions governing winter travel that are being carried forward. The Rule provides a national framework for localized winter travel decisions and mapping efforts to move forward under based on open, restricted and prohibited areas designations. Participation of the local snowmobile community in these local decisions is an important component of winter travel moving forward and will help balance sometimes limited funding resources for winter travel mapping with other concerns on the local level, such as mitigation of impacts from the mountain pine beetle. Some local riding areas may need time to resolve other management concerns before looking at winter travel management but it is important that our interest in the process be clearly stated to the land managers, even though their winter mapping efforts may occur at some point in the future.

Some Forests and areas have already developed winter travel maps that comply with the new rule, making the printing of maps a comparatively simple process. Given the clear and simple next step for these areas, any further discussion would be of limited value. I am going to address the areas where consolidating existing decisions into a single map will be necessary and these areas fall into two general categories, which are areas where a groomed route to access the open riding area is present in a restricted to routes area and those open riding areas that are accessed without reliance on a groomed route in the open area. Each of these are areas where the snowmobile community will need to become involved with the USFS and this involvement will probably be somewhat site specific.

Involvement is needed in areas that are accessed via a designated route maintained by the local club.

Grooming clubs have a long, well documented history of management for the route, so mapping the route should not be a major issue. The existing structure of the clubs will streamline discussions on how to effectively provide additional information that may be needed as winter travel maps will also need to address boundaries of large open riding areas, closed or prohibited areas and areas where travel is restricted to the designated routes. Properly reflecting these boundaries and educating users will be a critical part of the mapping process moving forward and will be an area where local clubs will continue to play a critical role as a partner of the USFS. As there is far more information needed to establish riding area boundaries, next year’s winter travel map may display far more information than maps that the clubs are currently relying on in the area. It is important to note that the club may play an important role in providing high quality information for users, as travel maps are only a decision document and more information may be necessary to effectively and safely travel in the backcountry. An example of this additional information would be identifying high risk avalanche areas in a particular district and providing contact information to avalanche education resources to reduce threats to snowmobilers in that area.

The snowmobile community involvement in the winter travel map development for riding areas that are not relying on an actively groomed routes for access to the open riding areas will also be necessary. These are areas where a formal club may not be in place but snowmobile usage is an important winter activity for winter users. Working with the local USFS managers in these areas will require some type of process on our end, simply to avoid a lot of people trying to individually participate. Forming a club in order to identify the proper person for the land managers to work with in the mapping process of any area is a significant step forward. These land managers will be employing the same basic process for mapping the areas where a groomed route is present after the contact persons are identified and discussions with the USFS begin. After starting a club or identifying a point person, contact the local forest service office to discuss where the office is in the mapping process and how you can assist them in developing the best map possible. You may have information that the land managers are not aware of regarding the history or usage of the area and additional information may be necessary to improve rider safety beyond merely identifying area boundaries.

It is significant to note that involvement with the local USFS offices may include developing an entirely new travel management map.

Creating a new map through the travel management process can be an effective manner to reopen areas that might have been previously closed. Recently there were new management documents released regarding the management of lynx habitat that clearly stated snowmobile usage is not a threat to the species and that snow compaction is the result of a natural process. This change should not be overlooked as in some areas habitat areas were closed to snowmobiling based on concerns of impacts to lynx habitat quality from snowmobile usage.

It is important to note that the snowmobile community involvement in these next steps for winter travel management will be critical to addressing local issues and riding areas and these issues should not be disregarded. It would be a worst case scenario for everyone if maps were finalized and then issues were identified that forced these maps and related efforts to be discarded and the process began fresh. We really need to work to avoid that end result.

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