Diverse group hatches proposed winter recreation plan

By Brad Smith
Reader Contributor

My dad and uncle met up in Sandpoint in 1983 after hearing about the beauty of Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. The allure of great fishing, hiking, skiing and other outdoor recreational activities piqued their interest. That trip resulted in my family moving to North Idaho in 1986. Like my dad, many area residents were sold the moment they reached the south end of the Long Bridge.

Our local outdoor amenities have kept me here. While I prefer casting a fly to catch trout, hiking to an alpine vista and skiing a quiet slope, many of my neighbors prefer trolling the lake for kokanee, touring a forest road on a four-wheeler or sledding powder on a snowmobile. Fortunately, we are blessed with hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. Our national forest lands are large enough to provide opportunities for everyone.

It is important to remember that we also share these lands and waters with wildlife and fish. I became interested in wildlife and conservation when I sighted a caribou at Beehive Lake several years ago. Though we are no longer fortunate to have caribou, we do have wolverine, grizzly bear, lynx, mountain goat, and many other fish and wildlife species. These animals have no voice — so we humans have a responsibility to find a balance between our own desires to use the landscape and the needs of wildlife.

Our local communities have grown substantially in recent years and so too has the number of recreationists. That’s one of the reasons why the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is embarking on a process to develop a winter recreation management plan for the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake Ranger Districts. With the advent of more powerful snowmachines, winter recreationists are able to access areas of the backcountry where humans rarely if ever traveled in the past.

A group of snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, trappers, outfitters, guides and conservationists began meeting last fall to try and identify areas of common ground for the winter recreation plan. As a representative of the Idaho Conservation League serving on this group, I was skeptical at the outset that we would agree on much. There are a lot of passionate feelings involved when it comes to recreation areas and restrictions we might place on our use of the landscape to protect wildlife.

Fortunately, the efforts of this group paid off. We recently achieved near unanimous support for a proposed winter recreation plan that I believe strikes a balance between the demand for winter recreation opportunities and needs of wildlife on our local national forest lands. Our proposal includes a mix of areas that will be open to snowmobiling and areas where it will be restricted to provide secure habitat for wildlife.

The ultimate decision on the winter recreation plan will be made by the Forest Service. The group that worked to identify areas of common ground are only providing recommendations in the form of a proposed plan. The Forest Service will be asking the greater public for input in the near future — a public notice and comment opportunity may come as soon as August. I am also told that the agency will host open houses for people that want to learn more.

People from across the spectrum will certainly find aspects of the proposed winter recreation plan that they don’t like. But hopefully the compromise hatched by our group is one that most everyone can live with. There will be snowmobilers who don’t like some of the proposed closures and restrictions. There will also be wildlife advocates that feel like the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect wildlife. 

Negotiating the proposed plan felt like a diplomatic exercise in nuclear disarmament at times, but I for one feel proud of the group for coming together in good faith to devise a proposal that recognizes the diverse interests in these lands.

In a time when our country is so divided, I find hope in initiatives like this. The purpose for establishing the national forest system was to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people from our public lands. If the winter recreation plan was just a snowmobile plan or if the plan didn’t provide for any access at all, then it would not be in service to the greater good. If you take the time to review it when it opens up for public input, then I hope that you will agree that we have crafted a plan that you can support or at least live with.

Brad Smith is the North Idaho Director of the Idaho Conservation League.

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