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Snowmobile interests, Forest Service
working together at local level

Above, 20 people gathered at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station to discuss snowmobile
restrictions with Ranger Tim Love, far right.

Below, Curtis Friede spots areas on a wall map that are popular
with snowmobilers and are included in the restricted areas.

by Gary Noland
For the Pathfinder
December 24, 1998

Responding to a sudden, Dec. 15 announcement by Lolo National Forest Supervisor Charles C. Wildes closing "motorized access" to some areas previously frequented by snowmobilers, about 20 individuals converged on the Seeley Lake Ranger Station last Thursday to discuss the effect of the closures ordered by the supervisor Wilde.

They were there by invitation of Seeley Lake Ranger Tim Love who, well aware of the antagonism Wilde's order would provoke in snowmobile enthusiasts, took measures to keep calm in the Seeley Lake area, provide solutions locally, and stay removed from possible lawsuits and drawn battle lines at national and state levels.

Elsewhere, the Montana State Snowmobile Association, joined by the national association and another group, prepared over the weekend to seek a temporary restraining order against's Wilde's decision.

The threat of a lawsuit by the Montana Wilderness Association forced Supervisor Wilde to acknowledge the Forest Service's own language in the 1986 Lolo National Forest Plan specifically forbidding motorized access to areas that the Lolo Travel Plan, a subordinate document, has allowed.

The language conflict between the two documents was never really an issue until recent years when snowmobile machines have become so powerful that they can go almost anywhere in the back country, limited mostly by the skill of the operator.

This allows the skilled riders, and some unskilled riders, to explore and play in areas that have been designated "roadless" or "future wilderness," pending a statewide Wilderness Bill Montana has been struggling to formulate for over a decade.

With state and national snowmobile associations considering their own responses in court, Ranger Love asked the local group to "join forces" with the Forest Service at the local level and avoid "fighting on drawn lines."

With a past history of cooperation with the Seeley Lake Driftriders and snowmobile interests in efforts to cut back on snowmobilers violating Tribal Wilderness Areas in the Mission Mountains, the Seeley Lake Ranger District is in a good position to "solve this and move on," Love said.

Love and Resource Assistant on the Seeley Lake Ranger District, Bruce Johnson, said the local district will work on site specific amendments to the Forest Plan, based on input by the group of areas already being extensively used by snowmobilers.

"We've already started on an analysis," Johnson said, and though it will be too late for any changes in this snowmobiling season, he held out hope that an analysis could be ready for decision before the 1999-2000 winter season.

Ron Ogden, wearing two hats, one as the Forest Service Law Enforcement agent on the Seeley Lake Ranger District, and the other as current president of the local snowmobiling club, the Driftriders, said "...a lot of people are looking for Seeley Lake to take the lead in this."

"We can't just focus on where we can go play. It's economic driven," Ogden said, "where Seeley Lake's winter economy depends on snowmobiling."

With over 300 miles of groomed trails, Seeley Lake is the sixth most popular tourist destination in winter, said Gary Guse, local Arctic Cat dealer, and "...Lake Elsina is what they all ask about."

A groomed trail leads to Lake Elsina, which will still be accessible under the new rules, but play areas in backcountry areas around the lake, popular with visitors and locals skilled enough for the challenges, are going to be off limits for now.

The potential economic impact was pointed out when one individual said he had just bought a $7,000 machine to use in the areas now restricted.

Now, riding in this areas, starting Jan 4, 1999, subject the rider to a warning, at the minimum, or, at the maximum, a fine of $5,000 and five months in jail.

"We know some of you are real mad. It's adisappointing thing that has happened," Love said.

Local outfitter and guest ranch operator, Jack Rich stressed how important it is to let people know "Seeley Lake is not shut down."

Though the Lake Elsina area is important, Rich said 95 percent of the snowmobiling trails and areas are still accessible and usable.

Ogden suggested another solution would be to open up new, challenging areas that are not included in the restricted zones by adding additional groomed trails for access.

Along with others in the audience representing snowmobilers from Seeley Lake and Lincoln, the chamber of commerce, snowmobile dealerships, and lodging interests, Rich accepted Love's suggestion to "work together."

"We've got to fix the problem," said Kurt Friede, owner of the local Polaris dealership, who went to the blackboard and began noting areas of interest to snowmobilers for site specific analysis.

Gary Miller, president of the Seeley Chamber of Commerce, said "...we can set a precedent by joining forces (with Forest Service)."

Rich likened the state of Montana to a house, with the Lolo National Forest a room in the house, and Seeley Lake to the bathroom.

"We've got to fix the bathroom, and not remodel the house," he said, accepting Love's call for cooperation at the local level.

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