Snowmobilers seek Trump’s help in gaining access to proposed Great Burn Wilderness

Hikers make their way toward Heart Lake in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Thwarted in the courts, snowmobile groups from Montana and Idaho are asking the Trump administration to open proposed wilderness areas in western Montana and elsewhere to their mechanized sleds.

The Missoula-based Backcountry Sled Patriots has drafted an executive order for President Donald Trump, requiring the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to prove snowmobile access would specifically harm a would-be wilderness area before denying mechanized access.

With support from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and two county commissions in western Montana, the Sled Patriots are honing in on the proposed Great Burn Wilderness, which straddles the Montana-Idaho border from Lolo Pass to Lookout Pass.

“The only real change is that decisions would have to be (based on) a specific finding, rather than a subjective finding,” said Stan Spencer, Backcountry Sled Patriots president.

“I’m a snowmobiler, so if there’s a specific finding that snowmobiles are impairing the wilderness character, I’m willing to listen,” he said. “But if it’s a subjective finding that it might be or could be affecting something down the road, that’s what bothers us to no end.”

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, no vehicles or mechanized equipment are allowed in congressionally designated wilderness areas, unless an exception is requested and granted – almost always related to an emergency.

Spencer asserts that the Forest Service’s Region 1 – including Montana, North Dakota and parts of Idaho and South Dakota – differs from the rest of the agency by managing potential wilderness areas as if they were designated wilderness.

He blames a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from 2011, which said the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act required the Forest Service to maintain the wilderness characteristics of study areas.

The only allowable changes, the court rules, were those that might enhance an area’s wilderness characteristics, such as barring access to motorized equipment.

Since 2011, the Backcountry Sled Patriots has joined two other lawsuits challenging Forest Service policy regarding motorized access, only to fail because of the 9th Circuit Court ruling.

Those losses, Spencer said, leave snowmobilers with no choice but to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court – or seek the president’s help.

In pursuit of the latter, Spencer said he talked to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who reportedly had a positive response to the draft executive order. Both Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue would have to recommend that the president sign the order.

“They might not recommend he signs it,” Spencer said. “But we would hope they would recommend to their own agencies that they make decisions based on specifics.”

To boost his group’s political muscle, Spencer asked a few Montana county commissions to join a handful of Idaho counties in signing a letter requesting the draft executive order.

On April 27, the Mineral County commissioners voted to sign the letter.

“In Mineral County, with just 8 percent private land, we want to see more opportunity to diversify our economy,” said Commissioner Roman Zylawy.

Lincoln County has also signed on, Spencer said. Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said his commission has yet to consider the letter.

Congress recognized wilderness study areas as potential wilderness in the mid-1970s, but has not passed legislation designated them as federally protected wilderness.

Montana has 44 wilderness study areas, 37 of which are managed by the BLM.

The Great Burn – 1.8 million acres – is recommended for wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service, a different category protected by forest management plans, not legislation.

In 1988, Congress passed legislation that would have created the Great Burn Wilderness, only to see the bill vetoed on Election Eve by President Ronald Reagan – a political move that helped Republican Conrad Burns unseat Democratic Sen. John Melcher.

In recent years, voices calling for elimination of potential wilderness areas have grown louder as more off-road and biking enthusiasts and resource-extraction companies eyed the mostly untouched areas.

To that end, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte recently introduced legislation that would remove five of Montana’s wilderness study areas from consideration, opening them to mixed uses.

Spencer and his Idaho State Snowmobile Association counterpart, Sandra Mitchell, are more narrowly focused in their campaign for access. They have worked for at least a dozen years to convince the Forest Service to reopen areas of the Great Burn to snowmobiles.

They say snowmobiles don’t cause environmental damage because they ride on snow, which eventually melts leaving the land untouched.

The machines roamed the Idaho side of the Great Burn prior to 2012. In Montana, snowmobiles were banned from the Great Burn in 1999, after the Lolo National Forest’s 1986 forest plan was belatedly enforced.

So Spencer and Mitchell say snowmobiles should be allowed access again, as long as they don’t exceed mid-1980 levels of use. Opponents argue that would be difficult to quantify or enforce.

“We’re just trying to regain something that was taken away from us. It’s public land – why are we banned just because other users don’t like us?” Spencer said.

Wilderness advocates, including the 40-year-old Great Burn Study Group, will certainly oppose Spencer’s efforts for a presidential order. Three years ago, the Montana Wilderness Association opposed opening the Idaho side of the Great Burn to snowmobiles.

Conservative western Montana counties, however, are allies.

At the Mineral County Commission’s April 27 commission meeting, a few local residents supported snowmobiles but had concerns that the executive order could open the door for motorcycles and four-wheelers in the Great Burn.

Commissioner Zylawy said the Forest Service could prevent those uses because several studies have shown motorcycles damage the land.

Other residents asked about the effect of snowmobiles on wildlife, such as wolverines or mountain goats. A recent Rocky Mountain Research Station study showed that wolverines avoid areas frequented by both motorized and non-motorized winter recreationists.

Spencer said the executive order would require the Forest Service to provide specific evidence that wildlife was affected in an area before excluding snowmobiles.

Spencer isn’t sure when he’ll send the proposed executive order to Washington, because there is “still broader support in play in Idaho.” But he said it will be soon.

“Some say this is an audacious undertaking, but sometimes you have to do these things to get people’s attention,” Spencer said.