The Sound and the Fury: Regulating Snowmobile Use on National Forest Lands

The sport of snowshoeing is synonymous with the concept of quiet. Aside from the soft crunching of snow underfoot and the occasional gust of wind, few activities are as silent and reflective as snowshoeing (though fly fishing and summertime hiking do come to mind).

That said, snowmobiling is pretty much the antithesis of all that. Tearing through the backcountry at high speeds, kicking up snow and destroying just about any sense of tranquility for miles around, snowmobilers have long been at odds with more traditional outdoors folk, including snowshoers, when it comes to use of the winter forest. As tax-paying members of society, they obviously have as much of a right to the use of public lands as the rest of us… but at what cost? When does a snowmobile’s right to the forest interfere with my enjoyment of the land as a snowshoer?

That question is why the recent move by the Winter Wildlands Alliance is worth watching.

The organization, along with a coalition of 90 other recreation and conservation groups, in August submitted a formal petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging it to amend its 2005 Travel Management Rule to regulate the use of snowmobiles on national forest lands and treat them just like other off-road vehicles are in the summer months. At the moment, the so-called “snowmobile loophole” leaves off-road use in the winter something of an open question.

“This is a matter of fairness and consistency,” said Mark Menlove, executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance, in a statement when the petition was filed back in August. “We acknowledge that snowmobiles are a popular winter use and that they have their place on national forest lands. But the current ‘anything goes’ approach to winter management allows one user group to dominate the winter landscape at the expense of all others and it puts fragile winter ecosystems at risk. We’re simply asking that snowmobiles be managed under the same guidelines used for off-road vehicles during all other seasons.”

We recently caught up with Menlove to get an update on the Winter Wildlands Alliance’s petition and learn more about the snowmobiling issue as it pertains to snowshoers.

SM: So how are snowmobiles currently regulated on national forest land?

MM: To answer that question we have to go back to 1972 when President Nixon issued what are known as the off-road vehicle executive orders, which directed all federal agencies to manage off-road vehicles in a way that didn’t harm the environment and didn’t conflict with other traditional recreational uses. Snowmobiles were clearly included under the definition of “off-road vehicles” under those orders.

In 2005, the Forest Service put in place a new rule called the Travel Management Rule which was really designed to reign in cross country use by ATVs and motorcycles. As a result, the rules that were previously in place were repealed and, for reasons that are still unclear, winter use by over-snow vehicles (aka snowmobiles) was exempted from the new rule.

There is still a clause in there that allows the responsible official at the local level to propose changes to the winter use rule, at which point all the procedural elements of the travel management plan come into play, but it is completely up to their discretion. There are a few forest units that have elected to take on their own winter travel planning, though less than half a dozen have complete plans, but even the most restrictive ones still leave most of the forest open to snowmobilers.

Overall though, snowmobiles are exempted from the 2005 regulations unless a local official proposes to change them for their local forest.

SM: What will this petition change?

MM: This is really aimed at eliminating that loophole and saying, ‘listen, snowmobiles are off-road vehicles.’  Let’s get rid of this clause that deals with them differently and just manage them like all other off-road vehicles. We’re going to be proactive and design areas where snowmobile use is appropriate, but there will be areas of the forest that are closed to motorized use just as they are in the summer.

Now that summer use is dealt with, it is now time to deal with winter.

SM: The new rules were adopted in 2005. Why wait until 2010 to issue this petition?

MM: Well, this has been in the works since 2005; we’ve been meeting with the Forest Service since the rule came out. Admittedly, there are factions within our membership that said we should have sued immediately, but we held off because we do believe that the Travel Management Rule is a good rule in terms of managing wheeled off-road use in the summer; we don’t want to jeopardize it. The Forest Service knows that winter use is something they need to deal with, but they haven’t had the bandwidth for it until now.

SM: And what about the wide range of groups that signed onto the petition?

MM: For us, the support is an affirmation that the USFS needs to have good management policies in place. All of these other groups that signed on realize that snowmobiles are now basically unregulated. In no way is it a statement in opposition to snowmobiling; they are all just in favor of consistency of regulation.

In the summer, it’s a whole different mindset and that creates different monitoring and enforcement and public education issues. We’re in favor of simplicity and consistency in management, and I think those supporting organizations see the wisdom in that.

In addition to the groups that signed onto the petition itself, Trout Unlimited issued a separate statement in support of this view from the sportsman community. For them, the aesthetic impact of snowmobiling has a negative impact on hunting and angling. They’re out there seeking peace and quiet, and snowmobiling ruins that.

SM: Is this just about being anti-snowmobile?

MM: The snowmobile lobby has been pretty vocal in their opinion that we’re trying to get rid of snowmobiles, but that’s just absurd. In no way are we suggesting that snowmobiles should be eliminated or that they don’t have a place on Forest Service land. It’s a popular form of winter recreation and it has a place. It’s just not something that needs to be every place. The idea that this is an effort to eliminate snowmobiles everywhere is just absurd.

The other thing the snowmobile lobby has said is that this is an attempt to restrict snowmobiles to trails and to restrict their use in backcountry areas, and that also is not true.

SM: What are the next steps?

MM: We submitted the petition at the end of August and followed that up with meetings at the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. last month. In the petition itself we requested a response within 90 days so that we’d know if they intend to go forward with rule change or not, but it would be at least a one-year process to make that rule change after the public comment period and everything.

We think it’s a good time for this, though. Since all of these forests and their various users and stakeholders have just gone though the travel planning process for summer use, that should be a real advantage when it comes to getting the winter plans together more expediently. They’ve all just gone through this, and we think it makes perfect sense to move sooner rather than later.

For more information about the Winter Wildlands Alliance, visit

About the author


Tim Sprinkle

Tim Sprinkle is a Denver-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Outside, Backpacker and Wired.