February 27, 2003 11:00 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

Of the Baker City Herald

With snow scarce down low, snowmobilers searching for powder are steering their machines higher than usual into the Wallowa Mountains this winter.

Too high, in some cases.

U.S. Forest Service officials say employees have found snowmobile tracks inside the Eagle Cap Wilderness more often this winter than in the past.

And once they even caught white-handed a pair of snowmobilers illegally riding inside the wilderness.

The riders, both from Wallowa County, were cited for violating the federal Wilderness Act, which bans motorized vehicles from entering wilderness areas, said Rob Gump, Eagle Cap Wilderness manager.

They were riding in the Salt Creek Summit area southeast of Enterprise, Gump said.

Most of this winter's wilderness violations occurred there or in two other popular snowmobiling areas adjacent to the Eagle Cap, he said:

• The Summit Point area northwest of Halfway.

• Above Catherine Creek Summit southeast of Union.

Gump emphasizes that Forest Service officials believe a small minority of snowmobilers are entering the wilderness.

"I think a lot of folks out there want to do the right thing," he said.

In fact, Gump said the Forest Service law enforcement officer who cited the two riders near Salt Creek Summit were tipped off about the violations by other snowmobilers, as well as by cross country skiers.

Gump said Forest Service officials prefer to work with snowmobilers rather than punish them.

Tom Smit, who works at the agency's Pine ranger station on the south side of the Eagle Cap, said snowmobilers are their own best police officers.

"It's the users who are going to regulate what's going on," Smit said.

"They're our best ally in this thing."

Local riders agree.

"Our people don't ride in the wilderness," said Sheila Farwell of Halfway, a member of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club.

"We live here and we have a real respect for (the wilderness)."

Randy James, president of the Wallowa County Snowmobile Club, said his group also encourages snowmobilers to be responsible and to ride only in permitted places.

"A responsible rider is aware of where they are riding and respects the land and its boundaries," James said.

Gump encourages snowmobilers who plan to ride near the Eagle Cap, or any other wilderness, to carry a map showing boundaries.

He attributes this winter's increase in wilderness violations to two main factors.

First, the lack of low-elevation snow forces riders to climb farther into the mountains, and thus closer to the wilderness boundary.

Second, poor snowmobiling conditions across much of the Northwest have encouraged riders to drive to the Wallowas, one of the few ranges with sufficient snow, if not a surplus.

On a recent Saturday Gump counted 56 vehicles at Salt Creek Summit — four to five times more than on past winter weekends.

Most of these newcomers aren't as familiar as local riders with the Eagle Cap Wilderness boundaries, and thus are more likely to cross the line by mistake, Gump said.

"We're definitely seeing a huge impact from people coming from outside the area," he said.

Farwell estimates that 95 percent of riders who enter the wilderness do so unintentionally.

"I think there's a few hotdoggers who may know where they are and what they're doing, but a lot of people have no idea they're even close to (the wilderness boundary)," she said.

Informing visitors

Dozens of snowmobilers from Idaho and Washington have congregated on the south side of the Eagle Cap this winter, said Smit.

"They're pouring in here this year because we're one of the few areas that have good snow," he said.

But these out-of-state riders don't always notice wilderness boundaries, he said — especially in popular riding spots such as Little Eagle Meadows, where the wilderness line bisects a meadow.

Gump said the Forest Service is striving to alleviate that problem by installing more — and more visible — signs along the wilderness boundary.

"I wish we had more money to post the boundary in a more obvious fashion," he said. "We've tried to post the places where we've had problems."

Farwell agrees that a lack of boundary signs probably leads to many wilderness violations.

She said the Panhandle Snowmobile Club distributes maps showing the wilderness line.

"It's a dilemma," Farwell said. "It's always been a problem. We discuss it every year."

Forest Service employees, including law enforcement agents, also are patrolling popular snowmobiling places more often this winter, Gump said.

Last fall the agency bought a pair of powerful new snowmobiles capable of reaching the pristine powder hills that sometimes lure riders into the Eagle Cap, he said.

"We have a fairly good patrol presence in the Salt Creek Summit area," Gump said. "We have folks out and we're monitoring."

Smit said Forest Service workers patrol the Summit Point and Little Eagle Meadows area occasionally, although the schedule is not consistent.

The capabilities of the agency's two new snowmobiles are crucial, Smit said.

Fifteen years ago even the strongest snowmobiles bogged down in the deep powder and steep slopes common in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, he said.

Even riders who intended to cross the wilderness boundary rarely made it that far.

But now, with snowmobile makers fortifying their new models with dollops of extra horsepower every year, riders can push their machines faster and farther.

And that means parts of the Eagle Cap that once were inaccessible today are accessible.

"I'm not sure there are any places where some of these sleds and a good rider couldn't go," Smit said.

Although most reports of snowmobiles entering wilderness areas come from the Eagle Cap, Forest Service officials also know of violations at the Monument Rock Wilderness south of Unity, said Dan Ermovick, recreation staff officer for the Wallowa-Whitman.

Violations are rare in the North Fork John Day Wilderness between Granite and Ukiah, said Craig Smith-Dixon, ranger for the Umatilla National Forest's North Fork John Day District in Ukiah.

Much of that wilderness consists of steep canyon country that's not well-suited to snowmobiles, Smith-Dixon said.

"We certainly have places where you could get into the wilderness area with a snowmobile, but we've never seen tracks," he said.