NORDMAN, Idaho – A snowmobiler’s dream: Deep powder, sunny Saturday and miles of trails through some of Idaho’s prettiest cedar groves and mountains.
But this winter, the snowmobile trailhead parking lot here is nearly empty following a recent decision by a federal judge that halted grooming on 77 miles of popular trails through endangered caribou habitat. The ruling has not only made the forests quieter, it is also suffocating this lakeside community’s winter recreation economy, business owners say.
The trails remain open for use. But without mechanical grooming, the once-smooth pathways quickly become miles of practically impassable bumps. Priest Lake resident Tony Bretthauer was one of the few snowmobilers willing to subject his kidneys and spine to the ride on a recent weekend afternoon.
“It’s hard on our bodies, but I’m going to make a run for it,” he said as he straddled his idling Ski-Doo in the near-empty Nordman trailhead parking lot.
Nearly 500 miles of groomed trails in the Selkirk Mountains remain unaffected by the ban, including popular routes along the lake’s east shore, but these trails are nearly an hour’s drive away from Nordman’s resorts and businesses.
“It’s been devastating,” said Randy Voltava, owner of Priest Lake Lodge. For the past 10 years, Voltava spent most of his winter weekends trying to shoe-horn snowmobile trailers into his parking lot. This year his motel and café are mostly empty. Voltava began cutting back hours for his employees last week.
“See any sleds in our parking lot?” he asked.
Outside the motel, the surrounding forest was covered by nearly 3 feet of snow. Except for the delicate dripping of icicles hanging from the eaves, it was quiet.
“To be honest, this is what the environmentalists want. They don’t care about the caribou,” Voltava said.
Skiers and snowshoers just don’t seem to spend the money that the gas-powered crowd did, he added. “They just want to come in and use the toilet.”
The ban is only for one year, but it could be extended permanently depending on the outcome of the lawsuit filed in August by a coalition of environmental groups. The suit seeks to restrict snowmobiling inside a 450,000-acre federally designated caribou recovery zone. It also accuses the government of failing to protect caribou in the region and ignoring its own scientific reports, which list snowmobile harassment among the top threats to the animal.
The lawsuit was prompted by a combination of government inaction, declining herds and the booming popularity of backcountry snowmobiling, said Mark Sprengel, a caribou advocate from nearby Priest River and director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance.
“If these animals are eliminated, are we going to applaud turning the recovery area into a motorized circus? Are we applauding the market hunters, who derived their income from killing the passenger pigeons? Are we supporting the buffalo hunters, who almost eliminated bison from the earth?” Sprengel asked. “We’re making the same arguments now – float the economy for a few years and eliminate these animals for all time. It’s insane. … These are public resources. They belong to 300 million Americans. They don’t belong to a handful of yahoos up at Nordman.”
The ban is prompting lots of nasty snarling in these parts. Earlier this month, the environmental groups behind the lawsuit were accused of “spreading domestic terror” by a guest columnist in the Priest River Times newspaper. “The time has come for us to stand our ground. We can no longer tolerate individuals or groups who intend on destroying our economy,” businessman Tom Holman wrote.
The groups named in the column sent a letter to the paper demanding a retraction, saying the column was laden with false statements.
“It’s so nonsensical it defies imagination,” Sprengel said of the column. “They can’t buttress their arguments with science or fact. They make wild accusations and they can do it with impunity.”
Over thousands of years, mountain caribou have adapted to the snowy winters of Inland Northwest rainforest. Despite weighing upward of 400 pounds, caribou have dinner plate-sized hoofs allowing them to walk atop deep snow and reach lichen hanging high in subalpine fir trees. The food doesn’t offer much nutrition, but the snow protects the caribou from predators, said Wayne Wakkinen, a biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department.
“They’re not up there getting fat on lichen, but nobody’s bothering them,” Wakkinen explained. “They get up pretty much as high as they can.”
Their mealtime serenity has been broken in recent years, thanks to the advent of lighter, more powerful snowmobiles. Riders can now reach new heights in the backcountry. Noise from their machines not only frightens skittish caribou, but compacted trails create walkways for deer and predatory cougars that follow them, experts say. Recent research in two popular snowmobiling areas near Revelstoke, British Columbia, shows caribou sightings fell by more than half after 1998, when more improved snowmobile technology allowed riders to penetrate previously quiet mountain basins. But biologists also say backcountry skiing, logging and even global warming appear to play strong roles in the decline of mountain caribou.
Last year, only three caribou were verified to be in far northern Idaho. Another 30 or so members of the Stagleap Herd are just across the border in British Columbia, where snowmobile clubs this year began voluntarily staying out of prime habitat areas.
Many snowmobilers say the grooming ban near Priest Lake won’t do anything to protect caribou. Most of the affected trails don’t even cut through caribou habitat, they say. Besides, there’s only a few, if any, caribou left, said Larry Gerow, a snowmobiler and owner of a grocery store in nearby Oldtown, Idaho.
“I just don’t see any reason to protect something that’s not there,” Gerow said. The few animals spotted in recent years have been in areas miles from any groomed trail, said Gerow, among a handful of snowmobilers spotted near Nordman on the third Saturday in January.
“To say all this country should be set aside is wrong. To live here, you have to be able to enjoy the environment,” he said.
Snowmobile trails might not cross prime feeding and winter areas, but the trails cut through the main route caribou use to travel between habitat in North Idaho and B.C., said Joe Scott, a caribou advocate with Conservation Northwest. The animals won’t be seen so long as there’s heavy snowmobile traffic.
Last year, many of the trails around Priest Lake were bare or covered mostly with ice. Ken Wimer, owner of Priest Lake Yamaha Polaris, said it’s doubly painful to have trail grooming shut down just as snow returns to the area. Business at his snowmobile rental shop and dealership has been cut in half – in December alone he lost $120,000 from the grooming ban, he said.
“I can’t withstand two seasons of this,” Wimer said. “It will kill this business.”
Wimer estimated that fewer than 10 percent of riders – himself included – venture off groomed trails. He’s never spotted a caribou in all his years of exploring the Selkirk backcountry and he knows of only one snowmobiler in the past 15 years who has.
“This has nothing to do with caribou,” Wimer said of the lawsuit. “It’s about fundraising. It’s to drive us out of the woods.”
Tough words, but Wimer – like the environmental groups desperately trying to save the last mountain caribou – are convinced this is a life-or-death battle. Wimer is urging his clients to contact politicians and join groups that fight to keep trails open to all users.
Local snowmobile clubs and some Priest Lake businesses also filed a countersuit in response to the caribou lawsuit. They want the Forest Service to open up all closed areas to snowmobiling, including nearly 15,000 acres on the Selkirk Crest that have been closed since 1994.
Even if the ban is lifted, Voltava, the owner of Priest Lake Lodge, wonders how long it will take for snowmobilers to return. Priest Lake, a clear blue jewel in the wilds of North Idaho, is beautiful, but there are lots of other good riding spots nearby: Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains and Cooke City, the Stanley Basin and Silver Valley in lower parts of Idaho. Voltava admitted he’s been stewing about how a single pen stroke by a federal judge can do so much harm to his community’s economy.
“It’s easy to cross one of us off the map,” he said. “It’s just a shame. One man can just sit there in a black robe and do this. It’s just a shame. … It took years to build a good business up here. It’s only going to take a short time to lose it.”