BOISE — A federal judge in Idaho has ruled the U.S. Forest Service broke the law by not crafting specific rules to govern snowmobile travel, handing a victory to backcountry ski enthusiasts.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled last week that the Forest Service must go back to work on its 2005 Travel Management Rule and draw up regulations designating areas of use and non-use by all off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles, on national forest lands.
The Idaho-based Winter Wildlands Alliance had argued the agency's decision to allow individual forests to exempt snowmobiles from the rules was illegal and would lead to conflicts between snowmobiles and backcountry skiers.
The judge agreed with the skier's group, ordering the Forest Service to write a new rule consistent with his decision within 180 days.
"The court finds the OSV (over-snow vehicles) exemption is contrary to law," Bush wrote. "The Court finds that the 2005 Travel Management Rule is arbitrary and capricious to the extent that it does not require designations for the use of OSVs upon the national forest lands."
Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, said the decision was a monumental victory for backcountry skiers, snow shoe enthusiasts and others seeking a peaceful experience in the woods.
The group's goal is to not shut down snowmobiles in national forests, but force the agency to designate specific boundaries separating the two forms of recreation.
"Many of our members use snowmobiles more and more to get to certain places, so we're not in any way asking the forest service to ban them," Menlove told The Associated Press on Monday. "But we are asking for some balance there, where our constituents can go and find peace and powder snow in the backcountry."
The U.S. Attorney's office in Idaho, which represented the Forest Service in the case, did not immediately return telephone messages left Monday.
The snowmobiling community and the groups that joined the lawsuit to defend the existing rule said they were disappointed by the ruling. Sandra Mitchell, public lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobiling Association, said she was prepared to take part in the process of drafting a new rule and defending the recreational opportunities and the rural economies that benefit from the snowmobiling industry each winter.
"Obviously we want to ride in a responsible way, and be in places where we don't have negative impacts," Mitchell said. "But we also want to ensure that opportunities exist not just now but for future generations."