Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
American Council of Snowmobile Associations
Washington, DC
— April 16, 2007

It’s a pleasure to be here. As some of you might know, I have spent most of my life so far in parts of the country that get a lot of snow. I grew up in New England, and my most recent position before coming here was in the Northern Rockies—need I say more?

I am quite accustomed to snowfall from October through May and to everything that comes with it, including some snowmobiling. Spring comes very early this far south.

Welcome to our fair city, which does have its attractions, like cherry blossoms and so much of our nation’s history. I hope you get a chance to enjoy some of these things.

Today, I’d like to give you a brief overview of where I think the Forest Service is, especially in terms of snowmobiling on national forest land.

Importance of Outdoor Recreation

The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. That’s an area almost twice the size of California—about 8 percent of the land area of the United States. It includes some of our most beautiful landscapes and some world-class destinations for outdoor recreation, both summer and winter.

In fact, by far the largest use of the national forests is for outdoor recreation. We get about 200 million visits per year, plus another 175 million driving visits to enjoy the scenery or the outdoors. Of all the uses of the national forests, recreation contributes by far the most to the economy: about $11.1 billion per year.

Outdoor recreation has multiple benefits. It can contribute to a healthy lifestyle while lowering health care costs. It can strengthen the ties of family and friendship. It offers opportunities for exercise, for engaging with family and friends, for aesthetic enjoyment, for seeing wildlife—and for just plain fun.

For all these reasons and more, the Forest Service continues to be dedicated to outdoor recreation. You will hear lots in the media about our focus on restoration. Recreation is certainly one of the things we have in mind in keeping landscapes healthy and restoring them to health.

Declining Budgets

With that said, we are facing some huge restoration problems in the United States, many of them fire-related. Last year, we had our biggest fire season since the 1950s. Six states have had record fires in recent years, and a new term has entered our vocabulary: megafires.

This has affected our budgets. In four of the last seven years, our firefighting costs have exceeded a billion dollars. Last year, a new record was set—more than $1.5 billion. Ten years ago, maybe 10 to 15 percent of our budget went to fire; now it’s approaching half. The pie has essentially stayed the same, but bigger pieces have been going to fire. Naturally, that means that the slices of pie that go to other programs are smaller.

That includes outdoor recreation.

And the long-term outlook is not encouraging. A century ago, most of our population was still rural, and the connection that Americans felt to the outdoors was strong. Six out of ten Americans lived from such rural occupations as farming, ranching, forestry, hunting, and fishing.

By 1970, however, seven out of ten Americans lived in metropolitan areas. The connection to the land had become more indirect—more recreational. Riding snowmobiles contributes to that. Snowmobiling is a great way to get outside, enjoy the outdoors, and connect to the land.

Now our population has passed the 300-million mark, and I am worried that we are losing our connection to the land altogether. The toys of the Information Age now dominate the lives of children, to the point where many suffer from what has been termed a “nature deficit disorder.” We see that reflected in national forest visitation, where two-thirds of our visitors are now middle-aged or older.

Unless we reverse this trend, I foresee declining interest in the outdoors—declining understanding of the value of public lands—and declining budgets far into the future.

Recommended Wilderness and Snowmobiling

Budgets play into the issues that specifically affect snowmobiling, which mainly revolve around access. I’ll turn now to some of those issues.

Let me start with something that might be on your minds. As a land management professional, I am deeply committed to the use of our national forests and grasslands. That includes a commitment to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Every 10 to 20 years, every unit in the National Forest System goes through a comprehensive planning effort with extensive public involvement to identify appropriate uses for different parts of the landscape. That sometimes results in a recommendation for wilderness designation. As regional forester in Missoula, I directed forest supervisors not to introduce or increase motorized and mechanized recreation in recommended wilderness.

That decision was based on my judgment as regional forester and had broad public support. However, I know there are always at least two sides to every issue. The National Forest System stretches across 42 states and Puerto Rico—and it is extremely complex. What is suitable in one place might not be suitable in another. Forest Service line officers base their decisions on the data, the science, and the public input, working to balance uses in a time when demands are increasing. Forest plans reflect all of that.

Access Issues

But there are broader access issues that are of deep concern to us all.

First, there is increasing development in rural areas, often right up to national forest boundaries. That has changed access across former ranches and former private timberland, making it much more difficult for snowmobilers and others to even reach national forest land. The Forest Service is keenly aware of this issue. We are working to secure rights-of-way before new developments go in. Part of the solution might be to tie forest trails to local greenway corridors and to share trailheads and parking facilities with local communities.

Second, back to budgets: There simply isn’t enough funding for roads and trails. I think Joel Holtrop, the Deputy Chief for National Forest System, touched on this issue when he spoke to you last year, but it is so important that I want to say a few things about it.

There are about 77,000 miles of forest roads built for use by passenger cars. These are our arterial routes, the principal access routes to the national forests. At current levels of funding, we can maintain less than a quarter of those roads. The situation is even worse for the 186,000 miles of road we have for high-clearance vehicles.

As forest roads fall into disrepair, we close some for public safety. We are currently losing about 2,000 miles of road per year in this way. In effect, the lands they access are then further removed from most of the public. You can do the math—in 30 to 50 years, a major part of the National Forest System could be made more remote for recreational use.

I think few Americans want this to happen. The problem is, most Americans don’t know it is happening. Most simply assume that government will take care of the public roads; but the Forest Service is not covered by the main funding streams for public roads.

We are doing our best to tap the major funding sources, and we deeply appreciate your support for the Transportation Safety-Lu legislation in 2005. Unfortunately, it didn’t go far enough. The next big opportunity is probably reauthorization of the Transportation Bill in 2009.


Before closing, I would like to commend snowmobilers in general and the Council in particular for being such great partners for the Forest Service. Throughout our history, we have depended on partnerships to get things done on the ground. Every major success the Forest Service has had has been fundamentally collaborative in nature.

Our partnerships with the snowmobile community have been exceptionally good. At the national level, we established a rule for managing off-highway vehicle use, and we appreciate your support and the involvement of your members as each national forest focuses on route designation. We are also working with the public to analyze how best to manage recreation sites and facilities to meet public needs, and again we appreciate your support and the involvement of your members. Our partnerships will be crucial to the success of these initiatives in the next few years.

I commend the Council and everyone else for your commitment to safe, enjoyable, responsible snowmobiling on both private and public land.

  • Manufacturers have joined forces with clubs and associations to help riders understand their responsibilities, and we appreciate that extra effort.
  • Industry has made tremendous progress in reducing emissions and noise levels. All the research and technology that goes into that progress reflects a high level of caring and commitment to conservation.
  • All kinds of volunteers work with the Forest Service to maintain trails and high-use areas, and we appreciate their support. We are also deeply grateful to the many individual clubs and associations that spend time building, maintaining, and clearing trails. Those trails often benefit a much broader range of recreationists and snowmobilers.

In closing, we face some daunting challenges to outdoor recreation in general and to snowmobiling in particular. But the snowmobile community of North America is 4 million voices strong, and I am confident that we can succeed by working together in partnership. I commend you for your dedication to safe, responsible outdoor recreation. Have a good week!