BOISE, Idaho (CN) - A loophole in the U.S. Forest Service's travel management plan effectively exempts snowmobiles from regulation on National Forest lands, an environmental group claims.
The Winter Wildlands Alliance says the 2005 "Travel Management; Designated Routes and Areas for Motor Vehicle Use" rule violates laws for off-road vehicles in the Salmon-Challis, Boise and Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
The Alliance says the Forest Service continues to allow snowmobiles in those areas despite conflicts with nonmotorized recreation users.
"The 2005 Travel Management Rule violates Executive Order 11644, which directs the Forest Service to issue regulations for use and control of all off-road vehicles, including OSVs [over-snow vehicles], in order to protect national forest lands, promote the safety of all users of those lands and minimize conflicts among the various uses of those lands," according to the complaint.
Winter Wildlands and other groups petitioned the Forest Service to close the loophole in the 2005 Travel Management Rule to include snowmobiles, but the Forest Service refused. It continues to allow discretionary regulation of snowmobiles in each National Forest.
"Contrary to the direction of Executive Order 11644, the 2005 Rule exempts OSVs from the requirement that the Forest Service must designate areas as open or closed to off-road vehicles on all Forest Service lands, instead making the control of OSVs completely discretionary on each national forest," the complaint states.
The Wildlands Alliance says the Forest Service's exemption of snowmobiles is "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion under the Administrative Procedure Act."
Fueling the complaint is the fact that snowmobiles are increasingly built with more horsepower, enabling them to travel farther into the forest and higher up mountainsides.
Winter Wildlands says the machines are still made with less efficient two-stroke engines that affect trees, vegetation, soil, animals and humans.
The Alliance cites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's finding that older two-stroke snowmobiles pollute more than off-road dirt bikes and four-wheelers, and produce an amount of pollution equivalent to 100 cars.
The emissions are retained in snowpack and discharged into lakes and streams during spring thaw. In addition, trees and vegetation are often damaged, limbs on saplings broken or bent, leading to deformed growth.
"These impacts can change the predominant plant species over large areas ..." the complaint states. "Studies have also connected snow compaction from snowmobiles to delayed flowering of plants in spring, lower soil bacteria and inhibited seed germination, dispersal and growth."
Animal species affected by snow compaction, pollution and noise include subnivean mammals such as mice and voles, deer, elk, bobcat, multiple species of birds, bear and the threatened Canada lynx.
Part of the problem, Winter Wildlands says, is that the 2005 Rule splits the Executive Order's definition of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) into two classes: OHVs and OSVs.
"In place of the mandatory regulations used for OHVs, the Forest Service added a provision to the 2005 Rule that affords the National Forests complete discretion in regulating OSVs rather than requiring forests to regulate OSVs as they must do for OHVs."
Winter Wildlands wants the court to reverse the snowmobile exemption and make snowmobile-use designations mandatory in all travel management planning.
Formed in 2000, Winter Wildlands works on behalf of snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders, winter hikers and other outdoor adventurers.
It is represented by Lauren Rule, with Advocates for the West, and Laurence Lucas, both of Boise.
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