Photo by Ming Poon

TODAY — May 29, 2018 — IS THE LAST DAY TO COMMENT on the Tahoe National Forest’s Draft Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Plan. Whether you’re a backcountry skier, splitboarder, Nordic skier, snowshoer, snowmobiler, timber sledder, snow scientist, dog musher, fat biker, e-biker, snowman builder, snowball fighter, ice climber, ice fisher, ice skater, winter through-hiker, lifelong local, weekend visitor, business owner, environmentalist, capitalist, philosopher, curmudgeon, or — like many of us — some combination of all these things, it’s important that the forest service hears from you about how winter recreation can be improved and sustained on our public lands, not just for some users but for ALL.

1) Good planning makes for a better future.

The forest service has never before been compelled to go through a comprehensive process to analyze and designate, with public input, where snowmobiles and other motorized over-snow vehicles (OSVs) are and are not allowed to travel — until now. The Tahoe is the second national forest in the nation (after the Lassen, also in California) to take a good hard look at how winter recreation might best be managed for the next 20-30 years.

Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.

— Gifford Pinchot, founding Chief of the United States Forest Service

We hear from some folks that things are just fine the way they are. Others feel squeezed out of some of their favorite places, or fear being squeezed out in the future.

Either way, given the complex pressures of population growth, climate change and new technologies, with ever more users getting out on public lands in different ways and in ever less predictable winters, we believe that good, balanced, forward-thinking winter management planning is essential. We believe the forest can provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources well into the future.

2) Separation minimizes conflict.

For a host of reasons, so-called “shared use” greatly favors the folks on machines over those traveling on foot. We believe that creating separate, discrete zones for motorized and non-motorized activities with reasonable, appropriate access for each is smart management, minimizes the potential for conflict, and makes the winter experience better for all users. Preserving and protecting a variety of recreational experiences — motorized and non-motorized — is good for stakeholders and also good for the local economy.

3) The status quo is out of balance.

One argument we hear from the motorized community is that “85% of the forest is already closed” to motorized winter travel and that skiers “already have ALL the wilderness.” In fact, nearly 3/4 of the forest is currently open to over-snow vehicle travel and only 2% is designated Wilderness:

  • Tahoe NF total area: 871,495 acres (100%)
  • Area currently open to OSV travel: 636,002 acres (73%)
  • Granite Chief Wilderness (the only designated Wilderness on the Tahoe NF): 19,048 acres (2%)

We don’t think of this as a zero-sum game. Nearly one quarter (199,565 acres, or 23%) of the forest lies below 4500 feet, where snowfall is generally inadequate for skiing or snowmobiling. Elsewhere, many of the same prime winter recreation areas are coveted by both motorized and non-motorized users. We believe compromises can and should be struck to allow both groups fair and adequate access. This process is our chance to restore balance to the landscape and to improve the winter recreation experience for everybody.

4) Public input is essential for public lands.

Whether you live in Truckee or San Francisco, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque, helping this national forest draft a quality winter travel plan is YOUR opportunity to help protect high-value winter experiences on public lands you care about across the country.

CLICK HERE FOR OUR QUICK AND EASY COMMENT TOOL.

Jeremy Jones Kicking Steps on the Tahoe National Forest
Photo by Ming Poon

 

FOR AS LONG AS I’VE BEEN BACKCOUNTRY SKIING, Memorial Day weekend has been an important part of my ski season. It’s when the Beartooth Pass just outside of Red Lodge, MT opens for the summer, providing easy access to high elevation spring snow from an 11,000 ft. starting point. From steep couloirs to crust cruising across alpine plateaus, the Pass provides everything my little skier heart desires. And, skiing there reminds me why the work we do with Winter Wildlands Alliance is so important.

Becker Lake in the Beartooth Mountains is within the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.
BRETT FRENCH/Billings Gazette Staff

Much of the terrain that skiers access off of the Pass is within the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming and has been protected to preserve wilderness character for the past 33 years. WSA status has protected the area from road building and other forms of development, prohibited summer motorized use, and limited how much snowmobiling occurs. Right now, however, the future of this WSA is up for debate and non-motorized recreation and conservation interests are getting the short end of the stick. At the same time, the two national forests accessed from the Pass, the Shoshone and Custer Gallatin, are working on plans that will directly impact future backcountry skiing experiences across each forest. Winter Wildlands Alliance is involved in all of these conversations and planning efforts, advocating to protect wild and quiet snowscapes.

We’re also working hard in California, which continues to be the center of attention when it comes to winter travel planning. Last month, just as we neared the finish line on the Lassen winter travel plan, the Tahoe published a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for its winter travel plan. Overall we’re pretty happy with what the Tahoe is proposing. We’re advocating for a few targeted changes to the preferred alternative to address lingering concerns around popular backcountry and Nordic ski zones.

Our friends at Tahoe Backcountry Alliance hosted an open discussion session and comment-writing happy hour in Truckee.

Unfortunately, misinformation has been spreading like wildfire through the Tahoe snowmobile community and many are under the impression that the Forest Service (and Winter Wildlands Alliance) is out to shut down snowmobiling on the forest. They’ve rallied thousands of comments and gotten the local ultra-conservative Congressmen fired up. Skiers have been bullied and intimidated and many are shying away from commenting. Click here for coverage of the controversy and process by the Reno Gazette Journal.

We need backcountry skiers, splitboarders, Nordic skiers and snowshoers to speak up and provide substantive and thoughtful comments!

We’ve got tons of information on our website. Please, if you haven’t already, take a moment now to comment on the Tahoe travel plan and to share the comment page with all your friends and ski partners.

Finally, no policy update is complete without a nod to D.C. It seems that no major piece of legislation is complete these days without an attack on National Forest roadless areas. First we had the budget bill, where Senator Murkowski (R, AK) tried (and failed) to insert amendments that would have exempted Alaska’s national forests from the Roadless Rule. Then we had the House Farm Bill.

“While some snowmobile riders are worried about losing forest access, others who have studied the proposal say potential losses are less drastic than some perceive. ‘We are not trying to get rid of snowmobiling altogether,” said Jim Gibson, vice president and secretary of Snowlands. “We just think the current 85% motorized/15% nonmotorized split needs more balance.'” — Benjamin Spillman, Reno Gazette Journal

Because the Forest Service is within the Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bill includes provisions that affect national forest lands. The bill includes convoluted language about roadless area management that could be interpreted to eliminate current regulatory protection of Inventoried Roadless Areas. And, more blatantly, the bill exempts Alaska’s national forests from the Roadless Rule to increase logging of old growth forests. Although the Farm Bill failed to pass on May 18, House Republican leadership is planning to bring the bill up for a second vote on or before June 22nd. The Senate is also working on their version of a Farm Bill, which we could see later this month. The Farm Bill is an important and complex piece of legislation that many people’s livelihoods depend upon. There’s no need to bog it down with unpopular, unnecessary, and controversial add-ons like these attacks on the Roadless Rule. Stay tuned. We’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Using decades of historical snowpack data students calculate averages and analyze recent precipitation trends in their local watershed…

Words and images by Mike Whelan, Treasured Heights

[Note: This post was revised June 26 to reflect local input.]

The Knife Edge, Chimney Pond and Hamlin Peak are names that invoke a smile for those who’ve been to the distant flanks of Maine’s highest peak. For many years I’d wanted to get on the peak, especially in the winter. After skiing 21 of the 24 snowy state high points I went back East to take on the region’s hardest and most remote mountain.

While New Hampshire’s Mount Washington may be the called the “Beast of the East,” Mount Katahdin is the largest independent massif with the most rugged terrain in the Northeast. The peak is located in the far north of Maine in Baxter State Park, and adjacent to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. In winter, the peak’s big vertical and 39 mile round trip distance makes it more difficult than most of the peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

The Long Tour

While the origin of backcountry skiing has been in long tours, today most backcountry skiers average under 8 miles in a day. Not only are the most popular peaks short on distance, but they also allow for gravity to make the trip out easy, skiing right back to the car. Even the giant Rainier allows for a bailout option and a gravity-fed escape to the comforts of civilization.

Longer tours on peaks like Gannett Peak (WY), Kings Peak (UT) and Katahdin are a totally different animal. There is no easy out and planning is critical. On Katahdin we started with a 13 mile mostly flat approach. Snowmobile traffic by the rangers makes it a smooth tour most of the time. The mental grind of a long woods slog with heavy sled is the first hard part about the peak. The vertical for Katahdin including ups and downs on the approach was over 5500’.

On the summit day we passed the amazing ice above Chimney Pond, and drooled at the gaggles of gullies found in the cirques between Hamlin Peak and Katahdin. After discussions with the resident ranger it was clear that avy conditions would not allow for descent of the steeper lines this trip. We stuck with doing laps in the Saddle Slide gulley and stood on the remote rime-covered summit 19 miles from the car.

Routes on Katahdin

There are plenty of gullies and cirques on the peak and it boasts the coolest natural feature of any Appalachian mountain: the Knife Edge. At only a few feet wide the east ridge of Katahdin drops off on both sides with wicked couloirs and gullies famous among ice climbers and notorious among eastern skiers. Local skiers can patiently wait years for many of the aesthetic steep lines to come in to skiable shape. Skiers more often go north of the summit to two large cirques with 2k’ vertical of gully skiing.

Most of Katahdin’s skiing is accessed from the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond from the East. However you park to the South of the peak and have to wrap around the mountain first. The bunk houses with wood stoves here are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips. This is great when travelling in the humid and frigid maritime air.

Planning and Red Tape

Bunk houses with wood stoves are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips.

If you are used to federal lands or state parks you’ll notice a different management style at Mt. Katahdin, this is because even though it is called “Baxter State Park”, it is run by a trust and through private funding. In the past they have had odd rules, which older skiers have told me about, such as list requiring carrying along an ax, outdoor thermometer and wind chill chart. In recent years they have modernized, however a few rules from that era remain that could be improved.

Reservation System

Skiers are required to reserve spots in lean-tos or bunkhouses by mail at least one week ahead of time. Just as we encounter in the West with tourists flying in for an ascent of Rainier or Hood in a short, inflexible window, this can lead to people ascending in bad conditions do to scarcity of other date options. I witnessed skiers going in on our last day as we were escaping a storm. Since spots are tough to get the group remained committed to skiing anyway. That storm resulted in avalanches that caught two people in the nearby Whites. Allowing for credit card payments and an online waiver form could allow for more spontaneous reservations which can take advantage of safer weather. This won’t solve the weekend problem but would help push things in a more fluid direction.

Skiing Prohibited after April 1st

The best skiing and safest snowpack happens in April on good snow years in the Northeast, and I have yet to see a solid explanation for the April closure. Unlike the Chic Chocs there are no caribou here competing for the same alpine terrain. Even if areas are sensitive after snowmelt, having a rigid date does not help the wildlife, changing to a cutoff date that can be extended on high snow years makes much more sense. At a time when conservation is under attack on a mass scale we need to cultivate more responsible and passionate users of the park.

More Than Just Baxter

The more people who are inspired by Mount Katahdin, the more people will care about this special place, and can resist efforts to challenge needed extensions of protected land around Baxter. As it is Baxter State Park is only 209,644 acres and active scars from the extraction industry are clearly visible on nearby lands. Ryan Zinke’s recent threat and retraction of the threat to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument illustrates a close call which could have required a national and full mobilization of all people who love this region, including skiers. Park managers must run the balance of protecting pristine nature and accommodating tourists like us to help the long term survival of the great north woods of Maine.

Katahdin is a place you visit and always dream of returning. Despite bad weather the magic of the mountain permeated through the clouds and our souls. Even with perfect weather we could have only scratched the surface of the countless gullies on this massif. At least once in a lifetime every East Coast backcountry skier should get up to Katahdin and see the wildest side of New England.

Check out this short film about the experience:

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Photos and videos of state high point skiing:
Instagram: @ski_TreasuredHeights
Website: http://www.TreasuredHeights.com