Environmental Impacts of Winter Recreation

Regardless of our intentions, many species perceive humans as a threat and respond accordingly. In general, animals respond to threats by first increasing vigilance (time spent looking around versus foraging), and running away if the threat is perceived to be imminent.

by Winter Wildlands Alliance

Studying the effects of winter recreation on the natural environment is a burgeoning field of scientific research. Studies show that winter recreation can impact wildlife, which is particularly vulnerable to disturbance from unpredictable human activities such as off-trail snowmobiling or backcountry skiing. In addition, many papers have quantified how over-snow vehicle (OSV) use can damage vegetation, compress soils, affect air and water quality, and disrupt natural soundscapes.

Most dispersed winter recreation in the United States occurs on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There are a number of administrative processes that provide opportunities to determine the management of winter recreation activities on Forest Service lands. For example, as of 2015, the Forest Service is required to craft a winter travel management plan for each National Forest that receives sufficient snow to support winter recreation, designating specific routes and areas for OSV use and prohibiting OSV use beyond the designated system. In designating OSV routes and areas, the Forest Service must comply with the minimization criteria as spelled out in Executive Orders 11644 and 11989.1 These executive orders require the Forest Service to locate areas or routes that are designated for motorized use in a manner that:

1. minimizes damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, and other resources of the public lands;

2. minimizes harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitats; and

3. minimizes conflicts between off-road vehicle use and other existing or proposed recreational uses of the same or neighboring public lands.

As climate change threatens – and shrinks – winter landscapes, and as population decline continues among certain threatened species, it is particularly important to understand how winter recreation activities impact wildlife and the environment, as we cannot minimize impacts if we do not understand them. The following report summarizes findings from the best-available science related to undeveloped (non-resort) winter recreation.

Attached document published May 2021

About the Author


Winter Wildlands Alliance was founded to represent backcountry skiers and human-powered recreation on America’s public lands. We are an alliance of grassroots organizers, environmental advocates, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and individuals who are devoted to protecting, preserving, and sharing access to quiet places in the mountains.

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