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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
Steve Franta and Brad Rhodes view Mount Jefferson from Reas Peak during a snowmobiling excursion near Island Park, Idaho.

The next big battle in the snowmobile-versus-closure arena isn't too far from the first — Yellowstone National Park — and in this particular case may well pit state-versus-state.

The preferred alternative of a draft proposal for Mount Jefferson/Hell Roaring area in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, north of the Montana-Idaho border and roughly 30 miles southwest of West Yellowstone, Mont., is complete closure of what is viewed as one of the premier snowmobiling areas in the country.

The area is on the Montana side of the border but has been adopted by Idaho, and in particular those in Island Park, which is the main access point to the Mount Jefferson area.

Montana's regional forester's position is that this area was set aside in a 1986 plan for a wilderness study and should be managed as wilderness until such time Congress officially designates it wilderness.

Opponents argue the USFS has no authority to close the area to riders since it is not a wilderness area, and for a range of other reasons including the fact that there are no conflicts, no damage, no effect on the wilderness potential, no impact on the resource and "in making this decision," said Adena Cook with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, "they did not take into consideration the social and economic impact this decision will have on the people of Island Park ... It could be devastating."

The area involved is roughly 1,700 of 4,400 acres within the Beaverhead National Forest. Some of the area has been closed to a wolverine study and another section is open to non-motorized winter use, i.e. cross country skiers and snowshoers. In the summer, the area is closed to all motorized use.

"The area they want to close is very popular with snowmobilers. It is a main destination area for riders from all over the world," said Dave Claycomb, off-highway program manager for Idaho Parks and Recreation.

"The area offers a nice diverse mix of riding conditions ... flat areas for the less skilled riders and areas on Mount Jefferson that are very challenging for a more extreme adventure. We get more non-resident riders here than in any area in the country."

According to Mark Petroni, ranger for the Montana Forest Service, at the same time the Mount Jefferson area was put under study, adjacent areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management were also under study. BLM land was eventually closed.

The closed area, however, was not used by snowmobilers.

Currently, the USFS is reviewing comments on alternatives, with the preferred alternative being closure. Other alternatives including leaving the area open, allowing trail access for Idaho-to-Idaho movement, since it is on the border and is linked to Idaho's Fremont trail system, which at more than 500 miles is Idaho's largest groomed complex.

Petroni said he expects a final record of decision to be issued sometime late this year or early in 2008. He said this project has been in the works for the past five years.

"One thing we worry about is that with the restrictions on Yellowstone, and now if they close this area, it could be the second nail in the coffin. The message to snowmobilers will be that they aren't allowed or wanted on public lands," explained Karl Wilgus, administrator of the tourism division of Idaho Commerce and Labor.

"(Montana's forest service's) position is that somewhere down the line this could be a wilderness area, and it could be in a year or 50 years. Their position is to manage it as wilderness now so they're ready somewhere down the line when and if is becomes a wilderness area. The loss to the people of Island Park and Idaho if this happens will be in the tens of millions of dollars."

Which isn't so different from what happened in West Yellowstone. The economy took a hit when the closure fight started and is just now starting to recover. Consensus is that it may take decades for a complete recovery, assuming snowmobilers are allowed to stay.

As for the Mount Jefferson decision, Cook pointed out that, "This area is a magnet for people all over the country who like to do high-mountain riding, especially here in what is some of the most spectacular country in the world.

"It is a wonderful experience, and one that is quite rare. It's a complete snow experience. Island Park, and Mount Jefferson, has an international reputation for good, dependable snow and incredible scenery. This area is too important to winter recreation to close."

The Idaho State Snowmobile Association points out that in establishing a wilderness study area in Montana, Congress said: "The use of off-road vehicles, while generally prohibited in designed wilderness areas, is entirely appropriate in wilderness study areas."


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