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Priest Lake’s trails reopened

A federal judge in Spokane delivered a gift to snowmobilers across the region Tuesday when he reopened several key trails in caribou habitat surrounding Priest Lake, Idaho.

Priest Lake resort owner Craig Hill was “ecstatic.”

“This couldn’t have happened at a better time,” he said. “It puts Priest Lake back on the map as a viable place to go snowmobiling.”

In September, U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley banned snowmobiles on about 300,000 acres of national forest northwest of Priest Lake. Environmentalists argued for the ban, saying the last herd of caribou in the lower 48 states was threatened by the growing number of snowmobiles near Priest Lake.

In issuing the original blanket ban on snowmobiling in September, Whaley gave environmentalists and snowmobilers a chance to work out a more trail-specific agreement. The two sides did just that, but Tuesday’s ruling offered snowmobilers far more than they had expected.

Whaley agreed to a separate proposal put forth by the U.S. Forest Service. Environmentalists are furious about the decision, saying the agency’s plan opens too many trails to machines. They blame snowmobiles for spooking caribou, which is what prompted the original lawsuit, said Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance of Priest River, Idaho.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Sprengel said. “This blindsided us. It contravenes all available science.”

Sprengel could barely contain his anger at the proposal put forth by the Forest Service. He said a “reasonable” agreement had been reached last week with snowmobilers, but the Forest Service refused to sign off on the deal.

“The Forest Service is taking a more pro-motorized sports approach than the snowmobilers were,” Sprengel said. “Their priorities are seriously out of whack, here.”

Perhaps the biggest change offered by the Forest Service is a loop trail around the north end of the lake. Environmentalists had refused to go along with such a trail, saying it cuts across important caribou habitat. Businesses and snowmobilers say such a trail is critical in linking vast trail networks on either side of the lake.

Whaley’s ruling Tuesday allows a loop around the lake. The judge also agreed to allow trail grooming to resume in the Pack River-Snow Creek area and the Smith Creek-Cow Creek trails near Bonners Ferry. The order also allows off-trail riding in the Roman Nose-McCormick Ridge area and in the Trapper Burn.

“Essentially, that’s opening up the whole caribou recovery area,” Sprengel said. “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.”

Idaho Panhandle National Forests spokesman Dave O’Brien said the agency simply followed the guidelines offered by state and federal caribou experts. The proposal offered by the agency will continue to restrict or close snowmobile riding in 89 percent of the agency’s caribou recovery area, he said. Furthermore, the agreement will protect “99 percent of the high-quality late winter habitat.”

These high alpine areas are used by caribou during calving season to avoid predators. Environmentalists say snowmobiles not only harass caribou during a time when calories are scarce but also leave behind compacted snow trails, which make it easier for cougars to access calving grounds.

A herd of about 35 endangered caribou inhabit the backcountry of far northern Idaho. In recent years, all but two or three members of the herd have seemed to spend their time north of the border in Canada. The caribou that have been spotted in the United States have typically been seen near the border – places far from the popular trails, according to snowmobile enthusiasts.

“We put forth a proposal based on the biology of the caribou,” O’Brien said. “That’s what the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be about – the species.”

If anything, the agreement is “overly protective,” said John Finney, a Sandpoint attorney and member of the Sandpoint Winter Riders snowmobile club. Finney said snowmobilers had agreed to work with environmentalists on a compromise as a strategic measure. Last year, Whaley banned all trail grooming in the area. In September, he banned all snowmobiling. Given this record, snowmobilers went to the negotiating table expecting harsh restrictions, Finney said.

“We wanted to get at least some of the baseline (trails) protected,” he explained. “We were pleased the Forest Service proposal carried the day.”

Craig Hill, owner of Hill’s Resort on the west shore of Priest Lake, said reservations from snowmobilers have “definitely been slower” following the blanket ban in September. Many business owners on the west side of the lake were predicting a winter ghost town without snowmobiles, despite the fact that all trails remain open for silent sports, such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

“It’s nice that some common sense enters into the equation,” Hill said. “It’s something that’s going to save the winter economy at Priest Lake.”

Sprengel, with Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said he and other environmentalists are considering their legal options. He also said the groups would again be flying over caribou habitat this winter to search for snowmobilers who break the law and venture off trail.

“We sure intend to be up there with the cameras,” he said.

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