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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Happier trails: Forest Service releases final snowmobile plan for North Idaho

Racers start the 2018 Priest Lake Vintage Snowmobile race in Priest Lake, Idaho. The Forest Service has released a new plan managing snowmobile travel in the northern zone of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.  (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)

Federal officials have wrapped up work on a long-awaited plan governing snowmobile use on public land in North Idaho, producing a plan that would give riders more certainty and a little more room to play beginning next winter.

The U.S. Forest Service released last month the final Kaniksu Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation Project, a document that outlines how the agency will manage snowmobiles and other motorized winter recreation on roughly 1 million acres of public land in North Idaho.

The plan lines out when and where snowmobilers and other winter motorized users will be allowed to ride. Overall, it will add about 17,000 acres to the area snowmobilers and snowbikers can enjoy, but limits the timeframe during which they can use the land. Before April 1, riders can access more than 767,000 acres, including some areas that have been closed for years. After April 1 – a date chosen to protect threatened grizzly bears – much of that area would close, leaving about 141,000 acres open.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter-million acres would be closed through the winter to protect habitat for threatened species like lynx, grizzlies and wolverines that call the region home.

The plan largely mirrors recommendations from the North Idaho Working Group, a collaborative panel of conservationists, motorized users and others that convened to propose options to the Forest Service.

Brad Smith, of the Idaho Conservation League, was part of the group, and he said it came together on the proposal after months of tough negotiations.

“For the most part, people can live with what we came up with,” Smith said.

For others, the plan still falls short. Some over-snow vehicle advocates quibble with the remaining closures and the season dates, and some environmentalists say the plan still allows too much access and could harm imperiled wildlife species.

Adam Rissien, of WildEarth Guardians, said the plan allows motorized use too late into the year and could pose problems for grizzly bears both coming out of hibernation and as they’re denning. He also wanted to see the Forest Service set a minimum snowpack level for over-snow use.

He added that his organization – which was not part of the working group – is reviewing the decision and considering whether it should file a lawsuit over it.

“We’re still evaluating the decision and considering our options while trying to balance out a lot of litigation priorities,” Rissien said. “Sadly, there are a lot of bad decisions out there. This is one of them, and we’re taking a close look.”

Long time coming

Deep snow and rugged terrain has long made North Idaho a winter destination for snowmobilers and others. Access was relatively unfettered until Forest Service officials began limiting it in some places to protect the area’s few remaining woodland caribou in the 1990s.

In 2007, a lawsuit resulted in a court order that barred motorized over-snow vehicles from the entirety of the caribou’s recovery zone in North Idaho, cutting off access to about 250,000 acres.

Around the same time, the Forest Service began implementing a new mandate for managing winter motorized use, which required completing a winter travel plan.

A series of delays ensued, until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a biological opinion on grizzly bears that required the Forest Service to finish a winter travel plan for the northern zone of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest by the end of 2023.

The release of the final Kaniksu plan last month meets that requirement. The document covers the Bonners Ferry, Priest Lake and Sandpoint ranger districts of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest (The four districts once comprised the Kaniksu National Forest). A piece of the Coeur d’Alene River ranger district is included, too.

The plan won’t go into effect until the Forest Service publishes a final map that lines out the regulations, meaning snowmobilers get one more winter under the old rules. Patrick Lair, a Forest Service spokesperson, said a final map is expected before next winter.

The designations in the plan are meant to balance over-snow opportunities with the need to preserve wildlife. Wildlife advocates worry the noise of snow machines causes animals to flee, and that such disruptions during the winter causes them to expend energy they need to be searching for food. They also have concerns about the impact of the vehicles on habitat.

There are no longer any caribou in Idaho, but the plan is still meant to protect its potential habitat should that change. It also had to contend with a number of other threatened species that call the area home, such as Canada lynx, wolverines and grizzly bears.

Considerations were also given to potential conflicts between motorized users and winter recreators who don’t use motors – cross-country and backcountry skiers, for example.

The Forest Service formed the North Idaho Working Group, which included more than two dozen people with varying interests in the plan, to work through that balancing act and make recommendations with which people on all sides of the debate could live.

Smith said that early on, it seemed unlikely that the group could find consensus. But through months of negotiations, he said they were able to come up with a plan that “provides the opportunity that people are looking for … while also making sure we have some secure areas for wildlife.”

Smith said the final plan closely follows what the group recommended, deviating slightly in setting closure dates in some areas and closing a couple of areas on the east side of Lake Pend Oreille because of tribal concerns.

He added that one of the biggest benefits the new rules and map will bring winter recreators is certainty.

“Now we just know what the plan is, and what it’s going to be for the foreseeable future,” Smith said.

New rules

Snowmobilers are getting a few wins in the new plan.

Fewer acres will be closed all winter. The plan closes about 267,000 acres, the bulk of which is in the Selkirk Mountains along the Canadian border. According to the documents detailing the plan, roughly 295,000 acres are completely off-limits now.

The plan calls for 450 miles of groomed trails, an increase of about 90 miles.

Some areas that have been off-limits for years will open under the plan, such as the upper Pack River drainage. Much of the drainage northeast of Sandpoint have been closed since the 1990s. About 9,300 acres are set to reopen when the new rules take effect.

Smith said the area is well known, and that snowmobilers involved in the working group were pushing to get access back.

The trade-off is that over-snow vehicles will only be allowed off trail in most places before April 1, including on the 25,000 acres in the Pack River headwaters.

That date is meant to protect grizzly bears coming out of hibernation. The threatened species exists in small numbers in the Kanisku zone, which includes at least parts of two of the grizzly recovery program’s focus areas – the Selkirk and Cabinet Yaak recovery zones.

About 348,000 acres near the Selkirk zone would be open from Nov. 16 to March 31, and nearly 276,000 acres near the Cabinet Yaak zone would be open from Dec. 1 to March 31.

Some believe the April 1 closure date is too late. Rissien said grizzly bears are coming out of hibernation earlier thanks to climate change, and that his group suggested the agency consider March 15 as a closure date.

Meanwhile, some over-snow vehicle advocates argued that all areas should stay open until June 1. In an objection to the plan, the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that advocates for motorized access on public lands, argued that snow machines have little to no impact on individual animals.

Some lands will stay open longer. About 150,000 acres would be open to snow machines until May 31, presuming there’s still snow. Those areas are mostly in the southern part of the plan area, near the lower Priest River and Lake Pend Oreille.