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New forest plan may restrict backcountry snowmobile use

Snowmobilers share groomed trails with recreationists on foot and sometimes wildlife. (FILE)
Snowmobilers share groomed trails with recreationists on foot and sometimes wildlife. (FILE)

WENATCHEE – Rob Mullins remembers the days when he could load up his snowmobile, ride for a few miles up any one of a dozen groomed snowmobile trails, park the machine and go skiing for a full day of quiet recreation.

That’s back when a snowmobile could barely chug through deep snow off a groomed trail.

But those days are gone. Now, Mullins says, he’s hard-pressed to find a spot – even deep in the backcountry – where he won’t run into a group of snowmobilers, carving up the powdered slopes that took him hours on skis to reach.

A former Leavenworth logger and trapper who retrained as a nurse, Mullins says he has nothing against snowmobilers. He relates to these guys when they stop to chat with him. And, after all, he uses one himself.

His issue is with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which, he says, is refusing to recognize that snowmobiling isn’t the same sport it was 20 years ago.

“It’s ridiculous. We’re out on foot, with our family or our dog, and we’re being asked to share the space with a vehicle that weighs 450 pounds and goes 80 miles per hour,” said Gus Bekker, who heads a Wenatchee backcountry ski and snowshoe club and, with Mullins, founded the Wenatchee Mountains Coalition.

There have long been tensions between people who like to recreate in the winter on skis or snowshoes and those who prefer riding on a snow machine.

But a newly proposed Forest Plan has brought the issue to a head.

Snowmobilers are upset because the Forest Service may recommend changing popular snowmobile play areas into wilderness, which is off-limits to snowmobiling.

And some nonmotorized users aren’t happy because the plan makes no changes with regard to snowmobiles, even though the machines themselves – and their use in the forest – have changed dramatically since the last plan was enacted some 20 years ago.

“Anytime there’s a change, it rolls down to us,” said Cal Anderson, president and groomer of the Apple Country Snowmobile Club.

He said when a skier or other winter user gets injured or lost out in the woods in the winter, ski patrols or the sheriff’s office call out the snowmobile clubs to help in the search. But if some areas used for winter recreation become wilderness, snowmobiles won’t be able to respond there, he noted.

Anderson said he’s not aware of any issues between skiers and snowmobilers sharing trails. “We really don’t have a problem with the skiers or snowboarders in our area,” he said. “In Lake Wenatchee, they share their trails with the dog-sledders. Everybody seems to slow down for them – same with the skiers.”

But some skiers say slowing down – while respectful and appreciated – isn’t really the issue, although noise, emissions and safety are reasons they think that sharing trails doesn’t work.

Bekker and Mullins say snowmobiles have taken over the forest in the wintertime, and no one’s doing anything about it. “Your average hiker or person that recreates in the summer, if they actually knew the extent of forest domination by snowmobile riding in the winter, I think they would be outraged,” Bekker said. “We’ve gotten to the point where, through default, and by nonmanagement, they’ve come to accept that the entire forest should be open to motorized use in the winter.”