Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassador Thomas Woodson photographed (and survived) a self-supported traverse of the Arctic Circle.
In March 2018, Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove, ambassadors Kt Miller and Rich Meyer, and friends ventured deep into the Smokey Mountains of Idaho for pristine powder, spiritual renewal and to support our Keep Winter Wild campaign. (Words and photos by Kt Miller.)
SMALL TALK ENSUED as we began working our way up the skin track with hut packs full of ski kits, sleeping bags, and local micro brews. Most trips begin with these formalities, as we shake off the bustle of our everyday lives. The rhythm of the skin track soon settled in, along with our comfort with each other, quiet, and solitude.
As we crested the ridgeline of Little Round Top the views opened up. Mountains stretched in all directions, and shadows danced in the sun underneath a blanket of burned trees from a forest fire not-so-long ago. A huge grin on the face of Sun Valley Trekking‘s owner, Joe St. Onge, hinted to the turns to come. With a joyful hoot and swift glide he led us down 1200’ vertical feet of perfect sunlit powder— and so began our four days of revelry in the Smokey Mountains.
We settled into yurt life, powder skiing during the day, and a rotation of good food, good conversation, and sauna sessions at night.
I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars.
Like many, I felt the weight of 2017, and although 2018 renewed my hope, the challenges have not ceased spiritually, personally, or professionally. The first evening I woke in the middle of the night to visit the ladies room— it’s always hard to crawl out of my sleeping bag on the first night, but as I tiptoed out of the yurt into the darkness I was overwhelmed by a deeply bright, starry night. I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars. I wanted to lay there staring up at the glowing sky forever, refilling my soul with the mystery of nature’s delight.
It felt as though our souls were starved for the walking meditation of the skin track. No one seemed to be able to get enough. The days began to blur together in a multitude of perfect powder runs through burned trees, again and again, ebbing and flowing and weaving our way across the landscape. Tired legs begged for more, eager to feel the weary satisfaction of a long day in the skin track, and a quiet mind in the mountains— to let go of the strife of daily life, to simplify, just for a moment— or perhaps to make that feeling linger longer. There was silence and laughter and gratitude and glee as we let ourselves surrender to gravity and bonded over our common love of wild places covered in snow.
As we packed our things on the final day it felt as though the trip had just begun. We celebrated our new friendships, and danced through the forest for a few more runs before heading back to the world below— renewed, restored, and rejuvenated— anticipating the next opportunity to both lose and find ourselves again in untracked powder snow.
We’re officially into spring now, and as much as we at Winter Wildlands Alliance love coldsmoke powder days, there’s nothing quite like Nordic crust cruising or skiing steep corn in the sunshine. The days are getting longer and the season for long distance tours is upon us. Happy Spring!
March has been filled with meetings and travel for Winter Wildlands Alliance staff and we’ve been busy working on all fronts of public lands advocacy — and seen some encouraging successes (good news at the end of this post)!
Forest and Travel Planning
During the first few days of March our policy director, Hilary, drove down to Leadville, CO for the annual Backcountry Snowsports Initiative (BSI) hut trip. Originally called the Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, one of the three founding organizations that created Winter Wildlands Alliance, it’s now a program within the Colorado Mountain Club. BSI unites winter organizations and enthusiasts in Colorado. Each year BSI brings land managers, hut owners, and backcountry advocates to the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s Sangree Hut to discuss advocacy issues that affect winter recreation. It’s always a great opportunity to connect with our Colorado partners.
On the way to Leadville, Hilary stopped in Red Lodge, MT to meet with the local district ranger and discuss the comments we recently submitted for the Custer Gallatin forest plan revision. Stopping in Red Lodge also gave her the chance to attend a Backcountry Film Festival screening, hosted by our local grassroots group Beartooth Recreational Trails Association. They had a packed house and an awesome raffle!
And on the way home to Montana from Colorado Hilary stopped in Cody, WY to meet with the Shoshone National Forest. The Shoshone is the one forest outside of California that is currently working on a forest-wide winter travel plan, and they have a new forest supervisor and a new planning lead. It was great to have the opportunity to meet with the new staff, educate them about human-powered winter recreation on the Shoshone, and fill them in on what we’ve been advocating for in the travel planning process. It sounds like we’ll be seeing a draft EIS for the Shoshone plan in June.
We’re expecting a draft EIS for the Tahoe winter travel plan and a final EIS for the Lassen winter travel plan any day now (by April 1, we’re told), with a draft EIS for the Eldorado NF plan shortly after. When those drop we’ll get the word out and analyze them as quickly as possible. Stay tuned to our channels or sign up to be part of our California Action Team to help us ensure that these forests have in place balanced winter management plans that provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources.
Forest Service Policy and Partnerships
The Forest Service is currently re-evaluating how they approach the NEPA process and they’ve been holding meetings in each Region to solicit advice on what to do. We attended the Region One and Region Five Environmental Analysis and Decision Making roundtables. Attending the Roundtables was a good opportunity to make our suggestions and concerns heard. There was also a public comment period recently on the “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” (we had a blog post about it a couple of months ago and worked with Outdoor Alliance to submit this comment letter). All of this is in part to comply with President Trump’s goal of streamlining environmental analyses and eliminating “unnecessary” regulatory burdens. We’re pretty leery of the reasons behind this effort, but do agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient in their approach to NEPA.
Also this month, our advocacy director, David, traveled to Sacramento, CA to attend the Forest Service’s Region 5 quarterly regional leadership team meeting and to serve on a panel about recreation access on public lands, alongside the Blue Ribbon Coalition, the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition and Youth Outside. He also updated the roomful of forest supervisors on the mixed results of a last-minute stakeholder collaborative convened on the Lassen National Forest winter travel plan. Despite those shortcomings, there was general consensus across the panel that improving agency partnerships with organizations and communities and engaging in better collaborative planning and management will be the way forward.
Our Executive Director, Mark, was in D.C. earlier this month with the Conservation Alliance. In addition to educating the full Conservation Alliance delegation on winter travel planning and other issues important to the backcountry community during the Conservation Policy Training day, Mark joined member company representatives from the Rocky Mountain region to meet with Congressional offices from Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho. The group conveyed our support and thanks for specific efforts such as the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and Recreation not Red Tape Act as well as overarching efforts including full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, while voicing strong concern with two bills that would release Wilderness Study Areas in Montana and another two that would codify the Trump Administration’s recent rollbacks of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.
As always, you can stay up-to-date on legislation we’re tracking by checking in on the bill tracker page on our website!
Mark’s visit was timely, as Congress was working on finalizing a spending bill, the details of which were released late last week. One would think the spending bill should just affect spending, which is important in and of itself because it sets how much funding public land agencies and important programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund will receive. However, Congress being Congress, the spending bill is also full of unrelated riders. We were particularly concerned about two riders Senator Murkowski inserted into the bill which would exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule and open up millions of acres of currently protected land for road building, logging, and development.
And finally some good news…
Thankfully, due to an outpouring of opposition from the outdoor recreation community, conservation community, and others who value wild unroaded lands, Murkowski’s riders were removed from the bill. In other good news, the final spending bill includes a 10-year wildfire funding fix and continues funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, at a slightly higher level than last year. However, even this slightly increased level of funding for LWCF is still less than half of what full funding would be, and the program is slated to expire on September 30 so we’re still pushing for full funding and permanent authorization for LWCF. Read a more detailed breakdown of what’s in the spending bill on the Outdoor Alliance Blog.
Winter in central Idaho was a bit slow to arrive this year. A strong La Nina pattern sent its polar jet stream with cold temperatures and precipitation in abundance to Montana and Idaho’s Panhandle. Meanwhile, the mountains to the south waited in earnest…
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