A clearer picture is starting to emerge as to what the Shoshone National Forest’s Travel Management Plan will look like with the Environmental Assessment recently released for that project.
Under the newly announced Alternative 4 proposal announced by Shoshone staff, the Forest Service will take steps to recognize an official over-snow vehicle use season for the North Zone of the forest, which would run from Nov. 1-June 15. This range was determined through the use of 16 years of historical data. FS staff would retain the right to adjust opening and closing dates whenever deemed necessary.
“We’ve been making sure all seasonal closures are science-based,” said Mark Foster, SNF environmental coordinator. “This is a collaborative project that involves conversations between conservationists and snowmobilers and finding new ways to respond to new issues.”
During a Nov. 2 virtual meeting on the recently released Environmental Assessment, some members of the public said they wanted this closure date scaled back to around April 30. Foster also said grizzly bear interactions with OSV users are rare.
“If you study the SNOTEL data sites … it shows we have plenty of snow,” said Bert Miller, president of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association. “We’re trying to make Alternative 4 work.”
Currently, there are 27 miles of groomed OSV trails and 31 miles of ungroomed over 266 square miles in the North Zone. There will be a new OSV ungroomed route with the addition of a 5.4 mile trail that will run from the Clarks Fork Canyon Trailhead near the Painter Outpost, north along Ghost Creek to the Beartooth Highway, and around 10 miles of trails added throughout the forest.
“We’re actually picking up ground,” Miller said.
There will be no reductions to OSV use in the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.
The OSV acreage in the Greybull ranger district will increase by two acres, thanks to an adjustment made to this use around the Wood River, and a three-acre increase will occur in the Wapiti ranger district on Rattlesnake Mountain.
Under Alternative 4, 20% of roads will be decommissioned, motorized trails will be increased by 537%, and total routes increased by 2% across the Shoshone National Forest.
In the Clarks Fork ranger district, two roads will be decommissioned, but overall routes will increase by 2%, and in the Wapiti ranger district four roads will be added, but total routes decreased by 4%. The upper 0.8 miles of the Sweetwater Road on the North Fork is still planned for decommissioning, with the remainder of the road adjusted to being a motorized trail due to wildlife migration activity taking place in the area.
The Greybull ranger district will see an increase of three roads and a 5% increase in total routes. Foster said there is potential for a new motorized trail to be added in this district and on Line Creek in the Clarks Fork.
The Eikster Lake motorized trail on Carter Mountain that was previously proposed will be eliminated based on public input.
A total of 15 seasonal closures will be added to roads and 23 to motorized trails in the North Zone, for a total of 106 miles.
“That’s a lot of miles,” Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden said during the board’s meeting on Tuesday. “I think that should be on a case-by-case basis.”
There will also be 10 miles of new trails in the national forest that access 42 dispersed campsites.
Alternative 4 is similar to a previous proposal that offers measures like transitioning roads to trails, seasonal closures and decommissioning of certain roads, but with the caveat of a longer and more clearly defined snowmobile season. The Shoshone can become eligible for a multitude of grants by converting roads to motorized trails.
“My fear is going forward, we have additional desire for use on the National Forest,” Tilden said, suspecting the Travel Management Plan will set a precedent for more restrictive plans initiated in the future, with population growth used as an excuse. “What’s going to happen in the future, they’re going to get more restrictive and have more people in a smaller area.”
A total of 17% of the forest is open for roads and motorized trail management, leaving the remaining 83% of the Shoshone ineligible for anything but non-motorized recreation.
“It means wildlife corridors, it means cross country skiing in winter with no snowmobiling,” Foster said, to explain non-motorized areas.
What’s in the forest?
Currently there are 882 miles of forest service roads and 36 miles of summer motorized trails (non-over snow vehicle use) in the Shoshone. There are 349 miles of roads for summer motorized travel, and 184 miles of roads have seasonal closures in the North Zone of the forest, which contains the Clarks Fork, Greybull and Wapiti ranger districts. Nothing that is classified as a summer motorized trail currently exists in the North Zone, although there are motorized options on Shoshone roads.
“We all know that motorized use and especially snowmachine use, winter use, they are big sports in Park County and a lot of people are doing it and more and more people are doing it all the time,” Tilden said.
Five miles of summer motorized trails are being proposed for only administrative use, which will be closed to the public, while another 11 miles would be closed entirely.
A total of 552,000 acres, or 21% of the forest, can be used by snowmobiles, which are classified as over-snow vehicles. This includes 200 miles of groomed and 85 miles of ungroomed OSV trails. Nearly all of this land is in the Beartooth Mountains.
The Forest Service published a Preliminary Environmental Assessment in July 2020, seeking public comment on the alternatives and analysis of effects during a 30-day comment period that was later extended by an additional 30 days.
During that comment period, the Forest Service received 6,500 individual comments. Of these comments, 3,160 came from the Sierra Club and another 2,403 came from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“It concerns me that the comments were primarily from special interests groups and conservationists,” Tilden said.
The Environmental Assessment is designed to be the culmination of that public input, re-evaluating prior proposals concerning motorized uses in the forest.
“The Forest Service believes that whatever alternative is selected, it will have a motorized use system in place that provides access to the public, supports program and project needs, and protects the resources of this Forest,” according to the EA.
Foster stressed the plan is not meant to be a source of law enforcement but rather a “science-based framework” for how the public would like to see the forest managed.
“It’s a tool – there’s always going to be bad apples,” he said.
An evolving process
In 2005, the U.S. Forest Service enacted a plan to govern off-highway vehicles and other motor vehicle use on all national forests, requiring that each national forest designate the roads, trails and areas that are open to motor vehicle use and display them on a map.
SNF did not start working on its travel plan until 2015, immediately after it finished its Forest Management Plan, which took nearly 20 years to complete. Between 2015-2017 there were numerous public meetings held to discuss the document.
The Shoshone Forest released a pre-recorded video explaining the plan’s draft assessment in 2020 and one public virtual meeting for the North Zone. Another virtual meeting was held on Nov. 2 for the EA, but once again no public meeting was offered.
“When they first started the process with scoping, they had such good participation from the general public,” Tilden said, adding there were 150-200 people at the original meetings.
Kristie Salzman, public affairs officers for the Shoshone, said because of COVID-19 concerns, any meeting exceeding 50 people needs prior approval from the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and would require mandatory face masks.
Tilden also criticized the virtual session because it made it difficult to inspect maps.
There were about 35 members of the public logged in to the Nov. 2 meeting, which Tilden said was run better than the 2020 meeting but “still confusing” due to some out-of-order slides.
The Park County commissioners complained about this at their meeting on Tuesday.
The board is requesting the Shoshone Forest either consider keeping full status quo or the summer status quo with the OSV increases.
“They’re going to do what they want,” Tilden said. “I don’t want to see any more loss of activities on the National Forest.”
The Travel Plan is now entering the final leg of its six-year journey to clarify motorized and non-motorized recreation in the forest. Lisa Timchak, SNF forest supervisor, will decide how to best implement the plan and whether it constitutes a major federal action, in which case an environmental impact statement would be required.
Once finalized, theTravel Management Plan will still take a few years before any of the changes begin, Foster said. Casey McQuiston, North Zone district ranger, said the SNF will go after “low-hanging fruit first” when it comes to projects.
Although numerous references to the Shoshone’s limited budget were made during the meeting, Timchak said new trails will also be built with the $2.5 million it is receiving through the Great American Outdoors Act