Snowmobile lawsuits alarm USFS

Two lawsuits, neither of which is directly aimed at the Inyo National Forest, have appeared on the Mammoth and Mono Lake Ranger District’s radar screens, with implications that could affect snowmobile use in years to come.

“There are a lot of moving pieces, and we’re trying to figure out exactly where we’re going to land and what we’re going to have to do to approve future snowmobile and grooming use on the forest,” said Jon Kazmierski, the recreation officer of the Mammoth and Mono Lake Ranger Districts.

At issue is whether or not the Inyo will have to re-draft its environmental rules as a result of the lawsuits, one of which involves a national forest on the Idaho-Montana border, and the other one involving five national forests in California.

Kazmierski made his remarks to the Mammoth Lakes Trail System Coordinating Committee at its regular meeting on Monday, Dec. 9.

He made clear there is no impending crisis immediately at hand, but that there are storm clouds on the horizon.

 “I’m going to continue to lay out the circumstances that we’re considering in trying to determine how exactly we’re going to move forward,” he said.

Kazmierski’s heads-up to the committee drew immediate reaction from snowmobile advocate Bill Sauser, a member of the committee and chairman of Mammoth’s Recreation Commission.

“This is another example of trying to manage the forest through the court system, and not allowing you guys to do the job—and you’ve done a good job to this point—at managing programs.

“It would be a shame to lose something we have put so much time and energy and effort in building up,” Sauser said. 

“I believe we have the most spectacular trail system in the West. I think it matches up with Yellowstone and those types of areas.”

Kazmierski implicitly agreed.

“We do not want to end up in a circumstance next winter where we’re unable to groom trails,” Kazmierski said.

“We understand how important it is to the local economy and tourism in the area. It’s an excellent recreation opportunity and one the Forest Service does not want to see set aside, even for one season.”

Kazmierski’s remarks also drew a reaction from committee member Sandy Hogan, a citizen activist and former forest service supervisor.

“We’ve had a well-managed snowmobile program on the Inyo for more than 20 years,” she reminded the committee and members of the audience.

Currently, the Inyo’s environmental rules, grouped under the mantle of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), are protected because of its contract with the State of California’s Off-Highway Vehicle Division, which pays for the trail grooming.

Kazmierski said the current contract would end in 2014.

He said that depending on how new rules, if any, are promulgated by the state as a result of the lawsuits, there could be repercussions that would affect the Inyo’s vast snowmobile trail system, which ranges from the Mammoth Shady Rest Area all the way to trail systems currently groomed at Deadman Summit.

He said the Inyo would push for an extension of its current agreements for at least two more years, which would allow local forest service rangers to arrange for sources of funding should they be for an Environmental Assessment, or in the form of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement.

NEPA is a federal environmental law that establishes a national policy promoting the enhancement of the environment, and also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). It sets up procedural requirements for all federal government agencies to prepare environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs).

Kazmierski said such a new study could cost between $50,000 and $80,000, depending on the time frame, but that the Inyo currently has not budgeted for such a cost.

“There was a settlement in the [California] lawsuit, and that settlement says that they have to conduct an EIS to review their snow grooming, and all snowmobile activities on their forests.

“We’re not one of the five forests, but there is some language in the settlement agreement we have to pay attention to and we understand that our snowmobile use here on the Inyo is being watched very closely.

“The rules we have for snowmobile use and our groomed trail system, we feel it’s been adequate in the past.

“But based upon this settlement and the national issues we’re facing, with the Idaho lawsuit, we probably do not have the National Environmental Protection Act rules the plaintiffs in these cases want us to have, or think we should have.”