An interesting study landed in my hands the other day, one that doesn't directly involve national parks but which could nevertheless have ramifications on the parks in one fashion or another.
The study was prepared by the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a non-profit group that strives to "promote and preserve winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports experience on public lands." What's disconcerting about this report is that it shows there's a heavily tilted edge towards motorized winter recreation on Western national forest lands.
For instance, the study documents that of 116 million acres of national forest land in the Western snow belt, some 81 million acres, or 70 percent, are open to snowmobilers. At the same time, just 35 million acres are officially designated as non-motorized areas. And more than two-thirds of that acreage falls within officially designated wilderness.
"Motorized proponents often point out that non-motorized users have exclusive use of wilderness areas" notes Mark Menlove, the group's executive director. "However, in winter the distances from plowed parking areas and trailheads make the vast majority of designated wilderness areas inaccessible to skiers and snowshoers."
The alliance gleaned its information by using Freedom of Information requests to obtain winter-use data from national forests that receive regular snowfall in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the western edges of Nebraska and South Dakota.
'We knew from anecdotal evidence there was a problem out there in terms of dwindling opportunity for skiers and snowshoers hoping to find quality winter recreation experiences," says Menlove. "But when you see the numbers of winter users overlaid with the gross disparity in miles of winter trails and total backcountry acres designated for motorized or non-motorized use, it provides a very convincing case for more equitable management of our national forest lands."
According to the group's study, in the involved forests there are 20,389 miles of groomed trails, but just 1,681 miles, or 8 percent, are designated as non-motorized. Yet at the same time, data produced by the Forest Service shows that the involved forests receive 5.6 million cross-country skier visits each year, versus just 4.4 million snowmobile visits.
Despite this hard evidence that there are nearly a third more visits by backcountry skiers and snowshoers to these forests, "more than twice as many backcountry forest acres are designated motorized as non-motorized in winter. When difficult-to-access wilderness areas are taken out of the equation the disparity becomes more severe, with designated motorized acreage outnumbering non-motorized, non-wilderness acreage by more than seven times," the study reports.
And while it's no doubt true that snowmobilers would need more acreage because they can travel farther than muscle-powered skiers and snowshoers, to have such a disparity is hard to stomach.
An interesting tidbit: Since the 1990s, when snowmobile manufacturers developed the so-called "power sleds," snowmobilers have been able to leave hard-packed trails and roads and head off into deeper snow. In effect, this greatly expanded their footprint on the national forests. Prior to that technological development, "skiers and snowshoers wishing to avoid motorized impacts could go off-trail to areas unreachable by snowmobiles," the alliance points out in the executive summary of its report.
What's the study's bottom line? Well, the alliance maintains that "the data documented in this report supports WWA's position that, in every applicable national forest unit, sizable and accessible areas should be closed or remain closed to over-the-snow vehicles to ensure a quality recreation experience for human-powered winter recreationists."
The tie-in to national parks? Well, one might argue that snowmobilers already have more than enough public lands space, perhaps an overabundance when compared to human-powered recreationists, when it comes to winter use and so there's no need to expand snowmobile use in parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
If anything needs to be done, more balance between motorized and non-motorized winter use needs to be developed by the Forest Service.