Over 60 attendees from joined Winter Wildlands Alliance for a busy but fun Grassroots Conference in Golden, CO in late June. Participants came to learn about the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule, Forest Service winter travel management planning, grassroots organizing, SnowSchool, and efforts to define a set of ethics for the backcountry ski and snowboard community.

The conference kicked off with an evening keynote by noted backcountry ski guide Donny Roth, who shared his thoughts on why it’s important to protect the winter backcountry, much as a gardener cares for their own backyard. Then, the following morning, we learned how winter recreation advocates can use the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule to get involved in determining how their backcountry playgrounds are managed. Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief of the Forest Service called on skiers to help the Forest Service identify the places that matter to us and stressed the importance of public participation in the winter travel management process. Participants then heard from a number of speakers who described in detail what exactly the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule is and how winter travel planning works.

Just over the hill from Golden, the White River National Forest has already gone through winter travel management planning and several people who were involved in this process – from Forest Service staff to skiers to conservation advocates – were on hand to share their experiences and lessons learned. In addition, conference attendees learned about working with diverse stakeholders and collaborative decision-making from representatives of the Vail Pass Task Force. This multi-stakeholder group has been coming up with collaborative solutions for managing the popular Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area for over 20 years.

We also invited representatives from the snowmobiling community – leaders from the Idaho, Colorado, and California state snowmobile associations – to come to the conference and share their thoughts on winter travel planning. In their presentation leaders from the Idaho, Colorado, and California state snowmobile associations discussed how the snowmobile community contributes both money and volunteer labor to maintain the groomed trail network and stressed that snowmobilers go into the backcountry for many of the same reasons that skiers do – for adventure, solitude, and family fun. We all recognize the value of collaboration and it’s clear that there’s quite a bit of agreement between Winter Wildlands Alliance and the state snowmobile associations when it comes to how to best engage in winter travel planning. It is our hope that these discussions with snowmobilers at the Grassroots Conference, including with representatives from the American Council of Snowmobile Associations,  opened the door to more conversations, and collaboration, to ensure that winter travel planning brings balance to the backcountry in a way that provides high quality recreation opportunities for all user groups.

On the last day of the conference we shifted our focus from policy and travel management to look more at grassroots organizing and the broader issues that affect the winter recreation community. Former WWA board member Reid Haughey started the day off with donuts and a presentation on the roles and responsibilities of non-profit boards. We then heard from a panel representing three different organizations with different approaches to grassroots organizing and learned how to use everything from social media to good old fashioned ski trips to engage our community.

Winter Wildlands Alliance’s very own Cailin O’Brien-Feeney brought the day back to winter travel planning with his presentation on Best Management Practices for over-snow vehicle management. He then teamed up with Brian Smith from Adventure Projects to present the internet’s newest ski beta sharing sensation – Powder Project. Powder Project is more than just a cool site for getting information on where to ski – data collected from the website will help Winter Wildlands Alliance and our partners identify and advocate for protecting important backcountry ski terrain.

We wrapped up the conference with an engaging discussion on backcountry ethics. The Utah Avalanche Center’s Drew Hardesty shared the UAC’s newest video promoting conscientious backcountry behavior and made the case for why the backcountry community would benefit from a defined set of ethics for how to behave when we’re out playing in the powder. Ned Houston, from the Vermont Backcountry Alliance, followed up by sharing the set of ethics that the Vermont Backcountry Alliance developed this past winter to promote community and protect access for backcountry skiing in Vermont. Black Diamond’s creative director, Alex Hamlin, joined the conversation to talk about why this idea of backcountry ethics is something that matters to the outdoor gear industry and how Black Diamond is helping to move the conversation forward.

In between presentations the room was abuzz with conversation as conference participants got to know each other, shared stories and information about the issues they’re working on at home, and made plans for future collaboration. It was tough to have to cut these great conversations short at the end of every break but nobody wanted to miss out on any of the excellent presentations either!

Winter Wildlands Alliance is absolutely thrilled with the turnout, quality of presentations, and interest of participants at this most recent Grassroots Conference. The conference educated and inspired attendees to be leaders in winter travel planning efforts on their local National Forests and we look forward to working with everybody to bring balance and certainty to the winter backcountry.

In anticipation of our Grassroots Advocacy Conference in Golden, CO later this week we are excited to announce the release of our latest report, Winter Recreation on National Forest Lands, A Comprehensive Analysis of Motorized and Non-motorized Opportunity and Access.  This report covers 77 National Forests and 176 million acres of land within the forests that receive regular snowfall and confirms that bigger more powerful snowmobiles continue to dominate a disproportionate amount of forest acres and trails compared to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

This report is an update and expansion of our 2006 report on the same topic and includes 19 National Forests not covered in the earlier report.  Utilizing data gathered through Freedom of Information Act requests, the report shows that while cross-country ski and snowshoe visits outnumber snowmobile visits by nearly two-to-one with 6.9 million ski/snowshoe visits compared to 4 million snowmobile visits, only 36 percent of forest acres are protected for non-motorized activities while 53 percent of the acres are open to snowmobiles and another 11 percent unclassified. Management of groomed winter trails is even more disproportionate with 78 percent open to snowmobile use.

With the release in January of the new Over-Snow Vehicle Rule requiring each National Forest Unit with regular snowfall to write a winter travel management plan, we wanted to better understand current management across the country in order to provide meaningful input as the Agency begins to implement winter travel management.  The information in the report is presented on a forest-by-forest as well as Regional basis and examines use levels, miles of available motorized and non-motorized groomed trails, and acres open and closed to over-snow motorized use.

It’s difficult to directly compare this report with the 2006 data given the expanded scope of the current report, but in terms of percentages the gap between motorized and non-motorized opportunity appears to be narrowing. The 2006 report showed 30 percent of the National Forest acres and 10 percent of groomed trails protected for non-motorized winter activities.  Nearly all of the change in terms of more equitable opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing and other quiet winter activities came through the small number forests that voluntarily implemented winter travel plans before the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle Rule was released.

The new Rule creates an opportunity for Forest Service managers to think proactively about how to balance all winter recreation across a forest and provide quality recreation opportunities for all users.  This new report gives those interested in backcountry and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling a baseline understanding of how National Forests manage winter recreation today in order to best prepare for planning for tomorrow.

The Winter Wildlands Alliance Grassroots Advocacy Conference starts next Thursday in Golden, Colorado!  The conference, which runs from June 18-20, is an opportunity for backcountry skiers, conservation advocates, and others who are interested in winter backcountry recreation to learn about Forest Service winter travel management planning, grassroots organizing, Snow School, and more.

To view a final agenda, see who the speakers will be, and register to attend please visit https://winterwildlands.org/2015-grassroots-advocacy-conference/