For the love of Idaho winters

Being responsible recreationists — from travel plans to climate change

By Karissa Huntsman
Reader Contributor

As we all look to the skies hoping for more snow, we need to consider the responsibilities that come with being winter recreationists. From minimizing our physical impact on the natural environment, to being involved in local policy making, to considering the implications of climate change, these responsibilities come in many forms.

After years of collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests recently approved a winter recreation plan for the Kaniksu National Forest. This includes the Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint and Priest Lake ranger districts within the traditional territories of the Kootenai, Kalispel, Salish and Coeur d’Alene peoples. 

Travel management planning processes began following the 2005 federal Travel Management Rule. This rule mandates national forests and grasslands to develop a system of roads, trails and areas for motorized travel, extending to snowmobiles and other “over-snow vehicles.”

Facilitated by the National Forest Foundation, the group that collaborated for this plan included representatives from government agencies, snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, conservation groups, outfitters, guides and hunters. After being subject to public comment, the draft plan received final approval in December 2023. Maps of the plan will be available by next winter.

Under the plan:

  • About 155,000 acres will be open to over-snow vehicle access from Nov. 16 to May 31;
  • 267,000 acres will remain closed to over-snow vehicle users all winter to secure areas for wolverine, lynx, mountain goat, elk and caribou (if caribou are ever reintroduced in the Selkirk Mountains);
  • The remaining acreage (approximately 578,000) will be open to snowmobile use only until April 1, to minimize disruptions to grizzly bears as they emerge from hibernation.

The plan strikes a balance between the demand for snowmobile and backcountry skiing opportunities, and the needs of wildlife. It also shows what can be done through collaboration. By following the winter travel plan, recreationists can minimize their strain on soil, vegetation and wildlife habitats — protecting our public lands for wildlife and people alike. 

Recreating responsibly extends beyond how you recreate and act outdoors. The most responsible recreationists — and lovers of public lands — are also advocates. And for those who love winter recreation, that means being a climate advocate.

Idaho’s climate is changing, affecting land and water, industries and communities across the state. Temperatures have risen almost two degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 (some areas are already above that), equating to fiercer storms, increased intensity of wildfires and a change in our water regimes. If you are a lover of winter recreation in Idaho, that last change should make your ears perk up, because it means a reduction in snowpack.

Mountain towns across Idaho have enjoyed white winters for decades. But as we prepare for the continued effects of climate change, what does the future hold for winter sports and outdoor adventures?

Under projected climate changes, we will likely see increasing single precipitation events in the winter and early spring, but mainly in the form of rain instead of snow, as well as decreasing summer precipitation. An increase in rain on top of snow events is also likely, which is important to note for winter recreation and tourism at resorts like Schweitzer. 

In the past 40 years, our Western states have seen snowfall decrease by 40%, which translates into about 35 fewer recreation days. If that sounds like a bummer for you ski bums (because it is), then also think about the impact on our communities that rely on winter recreation. Resorts are opening later in the season, which we’ve seen locally, and entire communities are feeling the financial strain caused by shorter winters.

How did this happen? These changes in rising temperatures, the timing of snowmelt and declining mountain snowpack are due to burning fossil fuels like gasoline, oil and coal. When these fuels are burned for energy, manufacturing and transportation, carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts. This builds up CO2 around the Earth, increasing the heat-trapping blanket and causing both air and water temperatures to warm.

Ski resorts around the country are taking steps to reduce their contribution to climate change and find ways to adapt — after all, their business depends on it. 

Alterra Mountain Company, which acquired Schweitzer, has ambitious climate goals, aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 50%, use 100% renewable energy and achieve carbon neutrality all by 2030. Time will tell what that will look like at our local mountain resort. 

These goals deserve recognition — and you can do so by telling Schweitzer that you support them in protecting forests and environmentally sensitive terrain, taking policy positions that support the environment by reducing traffic and emissions, and conserving water and energy. 

If we are going to tackle climate change, ease its most dire effects and protect our future winter recreation opportunities, then we need to work together. Whether your winter adventures are on skis, a board, snowmobile or snowshoes, the future of these experiences relies on taking action today. 

For the love of Idaho winters, let’s all recreate responsibly and become advocates for our natural resources.

Karissa Huntsman is community engagement assistant for the Idaho Conservation League.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.