Togwotee Pass becomes a playground in the winter. Snowmobiles cruise up hillsides through clouds of powder and backcountry skiers cut trails above treeline then float back down.
With its variety of terrain, accessibility and snowpack, it’s one of the most popular places on the Shoshone National Forest in the winter, said Hilary Eisen, the policy director for Winter Wildlands Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for human-powered winter recreation.
And for the first time, the Forest Service is looking at winter recreation — on the pass and forest-wide — in its travel management plan. People have until Dec. 10 to comment on the proposed plan.
The national forest is writing a year-round travel plan, but the winter piece is the first of its kind, Eisen said. A 2015 rule requires “that roads, trails and areas where over-snow vehicle use can occur be specifically designated by local Forest managers.”
The rule meant forest managers have to treat winter travel planning like they do summer, Eisen said. The Shoshone is one of the first forests to undergo a travel management planning process since the rule.
“It’s precedent-setting, not just for Northwest Wyoming, but also the whole country as the Forest Service tries to figure out what their new regulation means and how it fits into broader forest management,” Eisen said.
That’s why Eisen has scrutinized the plan so carefully. She’s concerned the forest didn’t take time to evaluate which areas are best suited for motorized use. Instead, Eisen said the plan is to enforce rules in those areas that are already off-limits to motorized travel, such as wilderness, or designated wildlife winter range, but to leave the rest of the forest open to snowmobiling.
The proposed plan does call for banning motorized use of cross-country ski trails on Togwotee Pass, other than for grooming, a part of the plan Eisen liked.
She also likes that the plan calls for an official winter season with opening and closing dates for snowmobiling. She’d prefer the dates to be streamlined, however. Right now there are different dates for different elevations and ranger districts, she said.
If there was one season for the Beartooth Plateau — which has snow much later into the spring and summer than other areas on the forest — and another uniform season for everywhere else, users wouldn’t have to remember different dates for different parts of the forest.
“The fewer and more enforceable regulations you have, the better,” Eisen said.
The Forest Service needs to address use in wilderness study areas, like the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area, on the Beartooth Plateau, she said. Those areas are open to snowmobile traffic, but to comply with law, motorized travel should only be allowed in the manner and extent that occurred when it was designated a study area, Eisen said. The High Lakes Wilderness Study Area was designated in 1984. Snowmobiles weren’t nearly as powerful then as they are today and the Forest Service needs to address technology changes, she said.
Cal Anacker, a past president of the Lander SnowDrifters, agreed with Eisen that the forest shouldn’t vary the season dates by elevation and ranger district. In the Washakie District near Lander, where Anacker often rides his snowmobile, the plan proposed a “low elevation” season of Dec. 1 through April 1. Yet some of the best riding is in April and May starting from Bruce’s Campground above Lander in Sinks Canyon, which Anacker said is considered part of the low-elevation zone.
He doesn’t have a problem with the agency setting seasonal dates. Nor is he worried about the season start date, which in the Washakie District is proposed for Dec. 1. But storms permitting, he wants to be able to ride into mid-May or even until June 1. There have been many years there isn’t enough snow to ride that late in the season, so when the opportunity presents itself, snowmobilers should be able to take advantage of it, he said.
This is a great opportunity for the Shoshone National Forest to set the standard for nearby forests including the Bridger-Teton, he said.
“The Shoshone should take the lead,” he said.
Anacker didn’t dispute anything else in the proposed plan, including the motorized closures around the designated cross-country ski areas on Togwotee.
The plan doesn’t address a lingering controversy surrounding Two Ocean Peak. Several years ago a group of backcountry skiers requested the Forest Service close a portion of it to snowmobiling. The proposed closure clearly wasn’t ever going to happen, Eisen said, so Winter Wildlands Alliance turned its focus instead to advocating for better education for and about the different user groups on Togwotee.
The Togwotee Backcountry Alliance, a local skier organization that has worked with Winter Wildlands Alliance, is working with area snowmobile clubs to place a kiosk at a popular access point on Togwotee, said Charlie Manganiello, a representative with the group. It will feature reminders on trail etiquette for all user groups, as well as avalanche safety reminders. The kiosk may have a beacon check, where people can make sure their avalanche transceivers are working.
“I don’t think we have to completely shut out a recreational user group,” Manganiello said. “What I do think we need is collaboration up there so people feel welcome.”
Anacker said the relationship between skiers and snowmobilers “still needs work,” but the local clubs have been collaborating with the Togwotee Backcountry Alliance to improve interactions among the user groups.
Skiers and snowmobilers have committed to educating those within their user group about being respectful in the backcountry, Anacker and Manganiello said. Users from all groups need to police themselves. The Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to regularly patrol the area, Manganiello said.
“It is a little bit lawless,” he said.
But that’s also the appeal for everyone who recreates at Togwotee. It’s easy to access from Lander, Dubois and communities in Jackson Hole.
“And it’s an area we can ski that is still very, very wild,” he said.
The Forest Service will evaluate comments submitted by Dec. 10 and host public meetings again in May or June 2018. It expects to publish a final travel plan for the Shoshone in summer or fall of 2019.