From the beginning, the National Environmental Policy Act has been an important tool for skiers seeking to protect wild backcountry areas. 

Photo: Mineral King Valley/Creative Commons

Right now, the Forest Service is considering some broad, potentially devastating changes to how it implements NEPA that could scale back your ability to have a voice over your public lands. Their proposed changes would roll back the public process from about 93% of all Forest Service projects, and in some cases, eliminate public notice altogether.

Industry groups and extractive companies who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA rolled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. The Forest Service also has not been very efficient in how they’ve done environmental analysis in the past, and there are legitimate reasons for them to pursue some modest reforms. It’s essential that they proceed cautiously, though, because changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.

The Forest Service is accepting public comments on these proposed revisions until August 26. We’ve made it easy to share your thoughts directly with the Forest Service through the link below.

Click Here To Comment Now

 

Photo Credit: USC Libraries/Mineral King Development Records

Mineral King is a sub-alpine glacial valley in the southern Sierra Nevada that was annexed into Sequoia National Park in 1978. It once was a place used by Native American tribes, including the Wikchúmni Yokut and the Tübatulabal. Today, it’s a scene that rivals Tuolumne Meadows or other High Sierra valleys, with a few remote campsites and a handful of summer cabins that were built in the 1940s. The area is remote; trails connect it to the rest of the national park. From the west, a narrow, winding road grants access from late spring to early fall. As soon as snow falls, the road shuts down and allows Mineral King to rest in solitude, save for the few backcountry skiers who are up for a long approach.

But it almost wasn’t that way. 

Had President Nixon not signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on January 1, 1970, Mineral King may very well have become a huge, bustling ski resort with 22 lifts, a gondola, a five-story hotel with more than a thousand rooms, a movie theater, general store, pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and a golf course. 

In February 1965, the Forest Service invited proposals for a ski resort in Mineral King and they accepted the bid from the Walt Disney Company, which envisioned a ski resort sprawling across the valley with 3,700 vertical feet and four-mile-long ski runs. To build the ski resort, they would have had to build a highway through the National Park. Clearly, it would have been a huge construction project on the edge of Sequoia National Park with a massive impact on the forest area and local wildlife, despite Mineral King receiving a designation by Congress in 1926 as a national game refuge. The New York Times summed up the “Battle of Mineral King” in a story published in 1969, pitting nature-lovers fearing a ‘winter Disneyland’ against the federal government and major commercial interests. 

In 1969, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Sequoia National Park, Sequoia National Forest, and the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction, which halted the project until the case reached the Supreme Court. The Sierra Club argued that the ski resort development would “adversely change the area’s aesthetics and ecology.” But the lawsuit was struck down in 4-3 vote by the Supreme Court on April 19, 1972.

Enter NEPA.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before NEPA, one of the only tools to fight for the environment was litigation. NEPA passed Congress by a large, bipartisan majority in 1969, including a unanimous vote in the Senate. When Nixon signed it into law, NEPA triggered “a revolutionary change in governmental decision-making that is important to this day,” according to the Environmental Law Institute. In a statement given just before NEPA’s passage to law, Senator Henry M. Jackson said, “The basic principle of this policy is that we must strive in all that we do to achieve a standard of excellence in man’s relationships to his physical surroundings.”

In the case of Mineral King, NEPA required the Forest Service and Walt Disney Company to engage in a public process that would study and analyze the impacts of their proposal on the environment and public health before construction began. As the Sierra Club amended its lawsuit, Disney was required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, which included a period of review for public comment. The final 600-page statement was released in February 1976. By then, Disney realized the scope of their project’s environmental impact and they walked away. In 1978, President Carter authorized Mineral King’s annexation to Sequoia National Park. 

Photo Credit: USC Libraries/Mineral King Development Records

 

For more stories about how NEPA has saved our environment and the places we love to recreate, head over to ProtectNEPA.org.

 

 

 

Break trail, not public processes. If you want to have a voice in the management of public lands, now is the time to speak louder than ever. Photo Credit: Thomas Woodsen

Have you ever commented on a winter travel plan, forest plan revision, or other Forest Service project? You were able to do it because of a law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Right now, the Forest Service is considering some broad, potentially devastating changes to how it implements NEPA that could drastically reduce your ability to have a voice over your public lands. Under the guise of increasing efficiency in environmental decision-making, the agency is proposing to create loopholes that would fast-track logging, road building, and other development on public land and cut back or eliminate public participation on the vast majority of all Forest Service projects.

NEPA was enacted in the 1970s to ensure that government agencies make informed and transparent decisions. It gives the American public a voice in agency decision-making. Among other things, NEPA is the law that ensures that you have a say in how public lands are managed. NEPA is arguably the most important environmental law in the U.S. since it requires agencies – like the Forest Service – to alert the public and evaluate the potential impacts on the environment, recreation, and more when considering whether to approve a project or make changes in how public lands are managed. It’s what puts the public in public lands.

Industry groups who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA rolled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. However, changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.

The Forest Service is accepting comments on their proposed changes until August 12. We’ve made it easy to submit a comment directly to the Forest Service and would encourage everyone who cares about public lands to do so.

Click Here To Comment Now

Here are some more details about what’s going on. If you really want to dig deep, click here to head over to the Forest Service website and read the full proposal.

Due to budget and staffing cuts, staff turnover, and inconsistencies in how NEPA is utilized across the Agency, the Forest Service is not always the most efficient when undertaking a NEPA analysis. However, rather than addressing these real and solvable issues, the Forest Service is proposing to gut NEPA in order to fast-track industrial and extractive development.

First, Understand the Levels of NEPA Analysis

There are three levels of NEPA analysis: categorical exclusion, environmental assessment, and environmental impact statement. We could write a whole book on these, but the biggest differences have to do with how much information is collected and analyzed, and how much you get to be involved in the decision-making process.

Categorical exclusions involve a cursory amount of analysis and limited opportunity for public comment, while environmental assessments and environmental impact statements are increasingly more detailed, require more analysis, and have more opportunities for public involvement. Generally, the more complex the project the more detailed the NEPA analysis.

Why Scoping Is a Big Deal

One really concerning thing about the Forest Service’s proposed revisions has to do with scoping. They’re seeking to eliminate the current requirement to conduct scoping for projects being considered under a categorical exclusion or environmental assessment. This means you’d be kept in the dark on up to 98% of Forest Service projects.

Scoping is a key process that informs the public that a land management agency is considering changes, and is the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on a project that is “categorically excluded” from analysis. Let’s go back to 2017, when the Wasatch Powderbird permit was renewed using a Categorical Exclusion. Under the current regulations, the Forest Service had to go through scoping and thus inform the public that the permit was up for renewal. This gave us and the entire backcountry community a chance to weigh in. Almost 300 people submitted comments. In the end, our fuss didn’t lead to the change backcountry skiers had hoped for in the final decision. But the bigger point is that, because the public process was transparent, we had the opportunity to voice our concerns—and that’s the crucial part we need to fight for now.

Scoping is also important for environmental assessments, because it gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on a project at the very beginning, and alerts people to the fact that the Forest Service is considering a project in the first place. Recently, the Forest Service wrote a winter travel plan for a portion of the Sawtooth National Forest using an environmental assessment. Scoping afforded a public comment period, which gave us, along with other conservation groups and members of the public, the opportunity to share information with the Forest Service early in the process. We documented important wildlife areas: namely, wolverine dens and mountain goat winter range areas. As a result, the final plan protects important wildlife areas, while still designating lots of terrain for snowmobiling.

Loopholes in the Law

The proposed changes to NEPA would also eliminate public input beyond scoping. The Forest Service is proposing to adopt seven new Categorical Exclusions and expand two existing Categorical Exclusions. These are essentially loopholes that allow projects to move forward without environmental review or public comment (except scoping, which they’re also hoping to get rid of). These new Categorical Exclusions include authorizing up to 6.6 square miles of commercial logging; converting illegal off-road vehicle routes to official Forest Service roads and trails, and building new roads – all without any public input or environmental analysis.

The Threat to Pending Environmental Protections

The Forest Service is also proposing to eliminate important protections for Inventoried Roadless Areas and potential Wilderness Areas. Currently, if a project is proposed in either of these types of areas, it must be analyzed with an Environmental Impact Statement. Under the proposed revisions, logging and other projects in these sensitive areas could be done under a Categorical Exclusion, shielding them from public scrutiny and environmental analysis.

Relying on Outdated Information to Make Big Decisions

Finally, the Forest Service is proposing a new way of dodging environmental analysis and public input. They’re calling it a “determination of NEPA adequacy,” or DNA. Using a DNA, the Forest Service could claim that an existing NEPA analysis can be applied to a new, different project and therefore no further analysis or public input is necessary. This is a problem because the prior analysis could be outdated, or it may not consider current outdoor recreation activities or changing landscapes, and therefore it wouldn’t have considered or analyzed the specific impacts of the new project.

If these revisions go through, you’ll be in the dark about most Forest Service projects. You may not even know that your local forest is considering building a new road or approving a new logging project, and litigation will be your only option for speaking up for the public lands you value. Cutting corners and disenfranchising the public is no way to manage our national forests.

The Forest Service is accepting public comments on these proposed revisions until August 26. It’s incredibly important that they hear from you about how these revisions would affect your ability to participate in public land management and in protecting public lands.

Click Here to Comment Now

President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. 

With summer solstice in the rearview mirror, it’s time to start looking forward to the coming winter! Just kidding. Here at Winter Wildlands we love summer too! Earlier this month our staff gathered for a staff retreat at City of Rocks to camp, talk shop, and climb rocks. We are excitedly planning our 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference and Wild Weekend, all of which will be in Boise this October. Save the date for October 24-27, 2019!

This month on the policy front:

  • Washington D.C. — We’ve been keeping track of a number of good bills that are making their way through Congress. Some of the ones we’re supportive of include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2019, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act. There are many others too — we’ll continue to keep the Bill Tracker page on our website up-to-date, so check it out for the full list.
  • Forest Service planning and environmental assessment – On June 13th the Forest Service published proposed changes to its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. According to the Federal Register notice, the Forest Service is proposing to change its NEPA regulations to increase efficiency in its environmental analysis. While we definitely agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient when it comes to NEPA, we’re wary of much of what they’re proposing here. Many of the proposed changes appear to be aimed at reducing public input in public lands management and expediting logging and road building. Comments on the proposed changes are due August 12. We’re still analyzing what the Forest Service has proposed, so stay tuned!
  • Winter travel planning – in late May we participated in an objection resolution meeting for the Tahoe winter travel plan. Over the weeks following that meeting, we’ve been encouraged  The Stanislaus will be hosting a similar meeting in early August. And, we’re hoping to (finally) see a final winter travel plan on the Lassen National Forest this summer! Winter travel planning on the Shoshone is on hold while they hire a new Environmental Coordinator.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying the long days of summer and finding time to get out on our public lands!

Hilary Eisen
Policy Director

Shana Maziarz crosses the Hulahula River to start a long day of earning turns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brennan Lagasse

IT’S BEEN A COUPLE OF MONTHS since the last Winter Wildlands Alliance policy update, not because there’s nothing to talk about, but because I ducked out of the office this spring to track wolverines in Mongolia. While in Mongolia, I ran into some unexpected challenges that illustrated how climate change is impacting wild snowscapes across the globe. It reminded me that, as backcountry skiers, our adventures take us to the world’s wildest places and we’re often among the first to see them change. As credible witnesses to the impacts of a changing climate on our mountains and snowscapes, backcountry skiers are in a unique position to speak up.

This is why, earlier this month, with our Outdoor Alliance partners, we submitted a range of testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Forests, Parks, and Public Lands for a hearing on the impacts of climate change on public lands recreation (scroll down to see the letter we submitted). Testimony included front-lines accounts from Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassadors Caroline Gleich (writing from Mount Everest), Luc Mehl (from Alaska), Brennan Lagasse (recently returned to Lake Tahoe from the Arctic) and Clare Gallagher (from Colorado), as well as our friend Ben Hatchett, a climate researcher in Northern California/Nevada.

You can share your own experiences with lawmakers and urge them into action by joining the Adventurers for Climate Action campaign today!

Meanwhile, we’ve been staying busy this spring with ongoing winter travel planning and OSV use designation in California, among other things. Over the past couple of months, we filed an objection to the Stanislaus winter travel plan and participated in objection resolution meetings related to the Eldorado and Tahoe winter travel plans. Each of these plans has many positive elements, but through the objection process we hope to improve a few key shortcomings and help the Forest Service develop solid winter travel plans for the central and northern Sierra. We had similar objections to all three draft plans: we’re concerned about the designation of some high-value backcountry ski zones (and designated near-natural areas) for open snowmobile use, the failure to protect the non-motorized character and experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the failure to adequately address the Forest Service’s legal obligation to minimize over-snow vehicle impacts on natural resources and wildlife and on non-motorized activities.

Meanwhile, in Montana, forest planning on the Custer Gallatin is in full-swing. The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the revised forest plan in early March. The comment period ends June 6. There are few places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin. Through work in a variety of coalitions, we’re advocating for a vision for the forest that balances conservation, recreation, and wildlife values. Find out more and submit a comment online here.

In other policy news, the state of Utah has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to exempt Utah from the Roadless Rule, which rule happens to protect the majority of backcountry ski terrain in Utah. We’re working with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, and our partners in Utah’s conservation community to push back against this attack on the Roadless Rule. You can help out by sending a letter to USDA Secretary Perdue and Under Secretary Hubbard using Outdoor Alliance’s online form. Perdue and Hubbard have been feeling the heat and haven’t responded to Utah’s petition, yet. Help us keep the pressure on.

Finally, I want to bring your attention to Minnesota, where the Trump Administration recently renewed federal leases for a sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are an amazing place to visit in winter, providing endless opportunities to cross-country ski, showshoe, and winter camp in one of the quietest places in the country. This week, Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum introduced legislation compelling the U.S. Forest Service to complete a study on toxic mining near the Boundary Waters and halt mineral leasing in the watershed of the Boundary Waters until the study is complete. Our partners at Save the Boundary Waters are leading the charge to protect this special place, and you can get involved here.

We’ve updated the Bill Tracker page on our website if you’re interested in seeing what other legislation we’re supporting, and tracking, on the Hill this year. There are a number of good bills, including bipartisan legislation to establish full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, a House bill to protect the Arctic Refuge, and legislation to codify the Roadless Rule and put an end to state-by-state exemptions from the Rule.

That’s all for now!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director


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If you play in the mountains of south-central Montana the Custer Gallatin National Forest wants to hear from you! The Forest Service is currently updating its decades-old management plan for the Custer Gallatin and it’s a once-in-a-generation chance for you to influence the future of places like Hyalite Canyon, the Bridger Range, and the Beartooth Mountains. The Forest Service recently published a draft plan that includes a number of different alternatives for how to manage the forest and your comments are needed! The comment period is open until June 6.

There are a couple of ways you can learn about the draft plan and how it affects you and the things you like to do on the Custer Gallatin. You can read it yourself – everything is posted here on the Forest Service’s website. Feeling pressed for time? We’ll break it down for you here and there are more details on our Custer Gallatin forest planning page.

Background

The Custer Gallatin National Forest is home to Montana’s highest peaks, a ski season that stretches from October through June (or, if you’re a die-hard, year-round), and world-class ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon. It’s also an integral part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The forest’s two Wilderness Areas – the Absaroka Beartooth and Lee Metcalf – and its many expansive roadless areas provide secure and connected habitat for countless wildlife, including rare species like wolverine and grizzly bears.   There are few other places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin.

Like most places, however, the Custer Gallatin National Forest faces challenges. Population growth and associated recreation pressures are having an impact. Climate change also poses a challenge. Average minimum and maximum monthly temperatures across the forest are predicted to rise by 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. This warming means precipitation is shifting from snow to rain. Less snow and warmer temperatures are melting the forest’s glaciers and permanent snowfields into oblivion – bad news for winter recreation. These changes also spell trouble for everybody (and everything) that depends on the fresh water the Custer Gallatin’s snowpack provides and are contributing to a whole host of other issues, including insect and disease outbreaks.

In order to ensure the Custer Gallatin is prepared to face these challenges, and to bring management into the 21st century, the Forest Service is revising its forest plan. This new plan will guide how the forest is managed for the next 15-20 years. The forest plan revision is an opportunity to protect wild places, proactively address changes brought by a warming climate, and find ways to manage recreation so that everybody can continue to enjoy their national forest without negatively impacting natural resources, wildlife, or their fellow visitors.

Our Vision for the Custer Gallatin

Our goal is a final plan that protects wildlands and the wildlife they support, preserves quiet winter refuges, enhances opportunities for a variety of outdoor recreation activities, and sets the Forest Service on a path towards ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable forest management. Of the management alternatives the Forest Service has developed, we think Alternative C is a good starting place, but we have some suggestions for improving it.

First and foremost, as a member of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, we support the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement. The GFP Agreement strives to balance conservation, recreation, and wildlife values and is supported by a wide range of people who live, work, and recreate in and around the Gallatin and Madison Ranges. Alternative C includes many parts of the GFP Agreement but we’d like to see the full Agreement incorporated into the final plan.

Beyond the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, we, along with our Outdoor Alliance Montana partners, are endorsing the Recommended Wilderness and Backcountry Area designations in Alternative C, with two modifications. We would like to see the rugged roadless lands to the west of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness – Chico Peak, Emigrant Peak, and Dome Mountain – recommended for Wilderness and we support a non-motorized backcountry designation for the Lionhead.

We support all of the Recreation Emphasis Areas in Alternative E with two modifications: we would like to see the Bridger Winter Recreation Emphasis Area expanded to include the Northern Bridgers, which are very popular with backcountry snowsports enthusiasts; and we support the GFP’s proposal for a Hyalite Recreation Emphasis Area as included in Alternative C.

Aside from designations, one detail that’s really important when it comes to protecting opportunities for quiet recreation is the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS). The ROS outlines where motorized use is suitable and the types of infrastructure that are appropriate in different parts of the forest. Getting the winter ROS map right helps to protect areas for quiet winter recreation. Because the ROS map shows desired future conditions (not the status quo), it’s the foundation for future site-specific winter travel decisions – whether it’s to update the Gallatin travel plan or to finally write a winter travel plan for the Custer portion of the forest. The final plan should include forward-looking winter ROS maps that carefully consider where over-snow vehicles are ecologically, socially, and physically suitable (i.e. where snowpack and terrain make snowmobiling feasible), and not simply map where snowmobiles are currently allowed.

Take Action

We need your help to make sure the human-powered snowsports community is heard as the Custer Gallatin plan finalizes their plan. Sending in a comment letter is the most meaningful way you can be involved. Comments are due June 6. When you write your comment letter, consider including the following points:

  • Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement– I support the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement and would like to see it adopted into the final plan.
  • Wilderness– I support the Wilderness recommendations in Alternative C with the exception of the Lionhead, which should be managed as a non-motorized Backcountry Area. I would also like to see the roadless lands from Chico Peak to Dome Mountain recommended for Wilderness.
  • Recreation Emphasis Areas– I support designating the Recreation Emphasis Areas identified in Alternative E with 2 modifications. The Bridger Winter Recreation Emphasis Area should be expanded north to Fairy Lake and I support the Hyalite Recreation Emphasis Area as described in Alternative C.
  • Travel Management– The revised plan should include an objective to begin winter travel planning on the Custer portion of the forest within 1 year of completing forest plan revision. The winter ROS maps in the final forest plan must reflect desired future conditions based on where over-snow vehicles are ecologically, socially, and physically suitable, and not simply map where snowmobiles are currently allowed.                                                                                                                        pro tip – share some examples of places you think are/n’t suitable for snowmobiling, or that you’d like to see managed for quiet recreation!
  • Wildlife– The Forest Service should monitor wildlife populations across the forest, particularly in areas with high human use, and adapt recreation management as necessary to protect wildlife.

Want to dig into maps, read up on the economic impact of backcountry snowsports on the Custer Gallatin, or listen to podcasts about forest planning on the Custer Gallatin? Click here to go to our Custer Gallatin forest planning page for more resources! 

Ready to comment?

Click here to go to the Forest Service’s online comment form