"This is what we've been saying for a long time," says Tim Wagner, board chairman for the Bear River Watershed Council. "The tremendous increase in [winter] motorized use in just the last 10 years has vastly trampled areas that were pretty much quiet and used by nonmotorized users traditionally. But just because there has been a tremendous increase in snowmobile use in Utah, it doesn't mean less people are recreating in a nonmotorized way."
Do the skiers and snowshoers have a point?
A recently released report by the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a Boise-based skiing and snowshoeing advocacy group, asserts that the Forest Service has, in fact, tilted decisively on behalf of motorized users when planning and determining winter recreation land uses on forest lands - even though in many cases skiers and snowshoers outnumber their snowmobiling brethren.
Among the highlights of the survey:
* Out of 116 million acres of national forest lands in 11 Western "snow belt" states - including Utah - about 81 million acres, or 70 percent, are open to snowmobiles.
* Of the 35 million acres that are designated as nonmotorized, more than two-thirds lie within designated wilderness areas, which during the winter can lie long distances from parking lots and trail heads - rendering them inaccessible. Remove those wilderness areas from the equation, and motorized acreage outnumbers nonmotorized acreage 7 to 1.
* Of the estimated 20,389 miles of groomed trails in the 11 states, just 1,681 miles, or 8 percent, are designated for nonmotorized use.
"The result," the report says, "is dwindling opportunity for skiers and snowshoers to find a quality recreation experience and escalating conflict between motorized and nonmotorized users on national forest lands."
The trend repeats itself on a state-by-state basis, according to the report, and Utah is no exception. On national forest lands in the Beehive State, there are 12 times more groomed motorized miles than nonmotorized miles. Three Utah national forests - the Ashley, Fish Lake and Uinta - have no nonmotorized groomed trails despite an estimated 42,000 annual skier and snowshoer visits to those forests.
Statewide, motorized user visits outpace nonmotorized visits. But on the Wasatch-Cache, where skier and snowshoe visits outstrip snowmobile visits by 50 percent, only one-fifth of the groomed trails are designated as nonmotorized.
"The situation in Logan Canyon is particularly egregious, because the Forest Service can't point to any comparable area that was set aside for nonmotorized use," says Sally Ferguson, grass-roots program director for Winter Wildlands Alliance. "All we were looking for with [the Franklin Basin/Tony Grove] decision was some parity, and there was none."
But Forest Service officials, while not disputing the report's numbers, frame the argument a little differently.
"This issue isn't just about acres or how many miles are groomed. It's about the experience," says Liz Close, recreation director for Forest Service's Intermountain Region. "People want the forest managed for their recreation experience. But when that comes at the exclusion of another group, that's where the conflict starts and that's tougher for the Forest Service to deal with."
Close points out that none of the 116 million acres of national forest land in the snow belt states is closed to skiers and snowshoers. The problem, she says that skiers and snowshoers seeking pristine snow and quiet are a bad match for a new generation of snowmobiles that can now reach terrain that previously could only be accessed on skis or snowshoes.
And the agency, Close acknowledges, is playing catch-up in trying to more equitably placate the competing interests.
"For a long time, our emphasis was on sharing the trails," she says. "I guess that was pretty naive, because that will never provide the kind of experience those [nonmotorized] folks are looking for."
Snowmobile advocates don't necessarily dispute the Winter Wildlands Alliance numbers either. But they see political spin in the report's thrust.
"It's very much biased toward the conclusions that they want to reach," says Curt Kennedy, public lands director for the Utah Snowmobile Association. "The public lands are open for all groups within reason. But what the study concludes is that the backcountry skiers have been pushed off what they consider to be their own private ground. They're trying to trump up a conflict that will get snowmobilers out of the backcountry."
Kennedy argues that if there is a disparity in terms of resources such as groomed trails on the forest, it's because motorized users in at least some cases have helped foot the bill for it.
"A backcountry skier pays nothing for a trail to be groomed. We pay a registration fee, a property tax, and a gas tax," he says. "Relatively little of that goes to grooming, but at least we pay. They're complaining about something they haven't paid for in the first place."
Ferguson, from the Wildlands Alliance, calls that an elitist argument. "Even though people pony up, it doesn't mean that those with the biggest toys get to control the public lands," she says.
Close, the Forest Service recreation director, says the only real solution to the winter motorized-nonmotorized conflict is for the two sides to come together and talk out their differences.
But Mark Menlove, the former Ski Utah director who co-authored the Winter Wildlands Report, hopes the agency will take the study to heart. "It's not meant to be scathing. The purpose is for it to be used as a tool, particularly for forest managers and rangers who deal with this conflict. This is an attempt to put data in their hands to help them make informed decisions," he says.