Boots on the Snow

Winter Wildlands Alliance Mobilizes Grassroots to Improve Backcountry Winter Recreation Management

Vehicles left for long periods of time in the Bucks Summit parking lot in January 2023, which affected plowing, in Plumas National Forest. Unceded Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Maidu lands

This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2023 Trail Break issue.

In over a decade of work on National Forest winter recreation planning, WWA has found that there has been little to no real data to inform long-range management decisions. Outside of resort boundaries, nobody really seems to know how many people are out recreating each winter, where they’re going, what they’re doing, how their activities overlap or conflict with what other people are doing. Is there enough parking? Signage? Restrooms?

In order to build a clearer picture, and to inform planning with real data rather than just anecdotes from different users, WWA partnered with Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) to adapt the smart-phone-based Recreation Impact Monitoring (RIMS) mobile app for objective winter recreation data collection.

Winter Data Collection

The 2022-2023 winter marked the second full season of our national Winter Recreation Monitoring Program. Using CMC’s RIMS app, trained volunteers and nonprofit partners across 8 states and 18 National Forests collected data for on-the- ground winter visitor use assessments, to report winter recreation travel management violations and use conflicts, and to help inform Forest Service winter recreation planning and implementation. Altogether, 681 assessments and reports were collected during the winter season, with visitor use assessments being the most common type of data collected.

Violations and Conflict Reports

The winter violations and conflict reporting function in RIMS provides a centralized tool that does not serve as a real-time enforcement tool. Rather, it provides a way to track use conflict and travel management violations with verifiable, non-subjective data. Violation and Conflict reports are confidential and not viewable by other app users.

This past season, RIMS users reported incidents including resource damage, snowmachine use outside of designated areas, Wilderness encroachment, and motorized use on non-motorized trails. Incidents recorded via RIMS are entered into a national database that can be tracked across seasons to provide an understanding of persistent problems.

Other Assessments

In addition to visitor use monitoring, RIMS was also used to collect data on the condition of signs and other facilities, as well as road and trail conditions. These assessments are very useful for noting whether signs and facilities are up to standard, or if roads and trails have maintenance or grooming issues that need to be addressed.

Snow Rangers and Winter Backcountry Ambassadors

In addition to Teton Backcountry Alliance’s Backcountry Ambassador program on Teton Pass profiled in the Spring 2023 issue of Trail Break, this winter also marked the fourth season of the CMC Snow Ranger Program. A joint effort between CMC and the Forest Service, this program is based out of Montrose, Colorado, and splits its efforts between the Ouray and the Grand Valley Ranger Districts of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest. Snow rangers collect data using the RIMS app and also interact with and survey winter recreationists at key trailheads and in the field. The Forest Service provides a truck, trailer, snowmobiles, emergency communication devices, and fuel for the program, while CMC provides administrative overhead, uniforms, touring ski gear, and avalanche safety equipment.

Backcountry Ambassador and CA Data Manager, Claire Marvet, spent last winter tracking winter recreation use and promoting positive backcountry interactions across the Sierra Nevada. Unceded Miwok lands. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Plumas Wilderness

Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) tracks by Obsidian Dome Road going by a sign that the area is closed to OSVs in Inyo National Forest. Unceded Northern Paiute lands. Photo by David Page @dtpage

An overflowing waste receptacle at Pinecrest Recreation Area in Stanislaus National Forest. Unceded Washoe and Miwok lands.

With in-kind support from Patagonia, WWA also began piloting a new Winter Backcountry Ambassador program in California, with preliminary efforts on the Stanislaus, Lassen, Plumas, and Inyo National Forests. Under the coordination of our first-ever seasonal California Data Manager, Claire Marvet, WWA worked with volunteers and grassroots partners across the Sierra Nevada, including Friends of the Plumas Wilderness, Friends of the Inyo, Snowlands Network, and Tahoe Backcountry Alliance. In addition to RIMS data collection, Backcountry Ambassadors worked to promote positive interactions between winter recreationists and to share winter etiquette, safety, and conservation tips with visitors in key areas where winter recreation is concentrated.

In partnership with specific National Forest units and the Pacific Southwest Region, WWA plans to further expand and formalize the Winter Backcountry Ambassador program this coming season, resulting in improved visitor experience, a reduction in winter use impacts, and an even-more robust RIMS dataset for future planning and implementation.

Stanislaus Winter Travel Plan Implementation

The Stanislaus is the first National Forest in the country to have finalized a Winter Travel Plan under the 2015 OSV Rule. It’s by no means a perfect plan in terms of conservation or improving and protecting human-powered recreation opportunities, but it’s much better than no plan at all, which is what existed before. Having invested seven years in the planning effort, WWA has now pivoted to partnering with the forest to ensure proper implementation and monitoring.