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Voices: Snowmobile use deep in Great Burn a threat to critical winter wildlife habitat

My name is Brian Christianson and among other things, I am a landscape photographer based out of Missoula. Last winter, I took four multi-day ski trips into the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness in an effort to photograph that rugged, gorgeous landscape in winter.

The goal of these trips was not to cover great distances, but rather to see, observe and document what I could. How rugged and gorgeous it is!

As a part of the forest planning process, the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest is considering opening up sections of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness to snowmobiling. This doesn’t concern me from a user conflict perspective: I witnessed no other signs of skiing and know of very few people that make an effort to do so in the Great Burn.

Rather, it concerns me from a wildlife perspective. The Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is home to many sensitive species that, under the best conditions, struggle to eke out a living during the winter months.

Wolverines and lynx, two threatened species, continue to struggle in the face of a changing climate. The native mountain goat population in the Great Burn is in decline. The added stress of loud machines moving through the subalpine is not insignificant.

My Great Burn travels last winter demonstrated that today’s snow bikes are incredibly nimble and capable. Places where snowmobiles hesitate to go are easily accessed by snow bikes, further reducing zones where animals can seek winter shelter. Studies have shown that snowmobile use in critical habitats negatively impacts wildlife by straining animals that are already resource deficient.

I have nothing against snowmobiling. In fact, I used one to legally access trailheads in the Great Burn via Forest Service roads. In addition to being great tools for winter travel, I recognize how fun they can be.

This is not an anti-snowmobiling letter. I am not advocating to take anything away from currently legal snowmobiling terrain. Rather, I am advocating for retaining the primitive status of the roadless Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. There are so few of these unprotected pristine roadless habitats remaining.

It is difficult to imagine regretting the decision to protect the Great Burn in 100 years. A protected Great Burn will ensure that future generations of hunters, anglers, hikers, skiers and backpackers will be able to enjoy the rich experience of recreating in an intact ecosystem.

We have the opportunity to add our voice to the forest planning process as forest managers collect information from the public. The outcome of this forest planning process will inform the next 20 to 30 years of recreation in the Great Burn. The future of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is in our hands.

This is our opportunity to make prudent decisions about where and how recreation takes place on our public lands. Keep the Great Burn quiet and wild. Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/nezperceclearwater/ to submit your comment by April 20th.