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Snowmobiling Can Go Too Far, Say Forest Officials Forest Service Considers Restricting Machines In Lolo

Thu., Feb. 6, 1997, midnight

Tom Magnuson has done a great job marketing “Silver Country” as a snowmobiling mecca.

Maybe too great a job.

The Silver Valley’s “1,000 miles of trails” national campaign has brought throngs of snowmobilers into neighboring Montana, too. The campaign touts North Idaho and Western Montana as “the world’s largest mountain trail system.”

But the marketing of Montana to Idaho’s 34,000 snowmobilers and the rest of the nation was a surprise to the U.S. Forest Service. It’s looking at restricting snowmobiles in Montana’s Lolo National Forest, especially in the “Great Burn” - 94,000 acres of alpine bliss hugging 34 miles of border.

And so the six-guns have been drawn in the latest showdown over how to truly appreciate the wilds of the West. Environmentalists want forests pristine, untampered with. Sports enthusiasts feel the way to appreciate nature is to get out in it. It’s a feud brewing from Yosemite to Yellowstone - and it just rode into Silver Country.

“Some of us were very concerned about the promotional efforts,” said Linda Hayden, a Lolo resource assistant. “Use has increased dramatically.”

The Forest Service has begun a study to help revise the Lolo forest’s decade-old travel plan. It ultimately will decide how snowmobiles can be used there.

“People thought we were closing down the state-line area to snowmobiling,” Hayden said of the 100 letters the Forest Service has received so far. “That’s absolutely not true.”

Tom Magnuson - president of Silver Country Inc. and Magnuson Hospitality - was attending a convention in Phoenix. A manager with Magnuson Hospitality said the company is pleased with the results of its first blizzard of winterlong promotion. The Silver Country Web page receives 3,000 hits per week.

The manager said the company hopes to expand, not shrink, the trails of Silver Country.

He mentioned Priest Lake, Flathead and Yellowstone as possibilities. The company is carefully watching what happens with the Lolo, but isn’t worried about closures.

About 30 snowmobile advocates - many from Idaho - met with the Forest Service last Saturday, in a one-room schoolhouse in DeBorgia, Mont. The agency will accept public comment letters until Feb. 15.

Environmentalists say snowmobiles are so loud that animals hear them for miles. Deer, elk and antelope use precious winter energy running when spooked. Bears awake from hibernation. The tunnels of small animals, which travel in burrows, are crushed by the weight of snow machines. Rangers also worry about wolverines and lynx living in the area.

Snowmobilers insist they aren’t motorized hooligans terrorizing animals. Snowmobiles don’t harm trails since they run atop the snow, advocates claim, and animals aren’t even in the areas they frequent.

“We go to the high county, animals go to the low country,” said Sandra Mitchell, of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association in Boise.

Hayden said the plan could mean changes snowmobilers would welcome - like bathrooms and parking lots in some areas. Snowmobilers are suspicious.

“When you talk to the Forest Service, management and closures are the same word,” said Al Beauchene, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Snowmobile Club. “We want it left alone.”

In theory, he’d like to see more areas groomed, but fears entanglements.

“By the time you ask the Forest Service to do that, they say there’s no money. They use that as the basis to close it.”

Environmentalists make a reverse argument when it comes to keeping snowmobiles out.

“As you start to develop a user base for an area, then you can reduce the ability of an area to be designated a wilderness,” said Missoula’s Bethanie Walder, director of The Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads. Motorized vehicles and roads are not permitted in designated wilderness areas.

Plans to designate the Great Burn as a wilderness have been kicked around for years. Walder fears the longer snowmobiles are allowed, the less likely it is Congress would approve that.

Rangers also worry about avalanches. Snowmobiles have become so advanced in recent years, they now go places that used to require a chopper.

The Great Burn got its name and topography from two large fires in the early 1900s. Some areas are peppered with young, smallish trees; others are open and bare. Either way, it’s spectacular.

“It’s the top of the world,” with a two-state vista painted beneath, Ranger Greg Munther said.

Alpine lakes. Blue skies. Sharp, snow-jeweled ridges. Cold, crisp air. People on both sides of the snowmobiling issue love the Great Burn.

“Seeing the land in the summer is exquisite, but seeing it in the winter is breathtaking,” said Mitchell, who travelled from Boise to attend Saturday’s meeting.

Environmentalists want it immaculate. “Some people just value having any area where there are no machines, even if they don’t go there,” Munther said.

“It’s a great place to be, anytime of year,” Munther said. “Everyone appreciates it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area

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