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

Senators Daines (R-MT) and Gardner (R-CO) champion #bipartisan effort to reauthorize LWCF, America’s favorite conversation program.

Winter Wildlands Alliance policy staff has been in Washington D.C. this past week for our annual Outdoor Alliance policy summit, as well as to check in with Federal land management agencies and meet with members of Congress. Congress is still limping through its lame-duck session, and it’s our last chance to make a case for legislation we’d like to see included in a possible last-ditch, year-end public lands package, and to get some important bills passed into law before having to start over with the new Congress next year.

With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

As many bad bills as there are in Congress these days (and there are plenty!), there are some good ones too. One of our top priorities has been to bring back the Land and Water Conservation Fund (#SaveLWCF). Congress let this program expire in September despite the fact that it’s America’s most popular conservation program, with broad bi-partisan support, and a critical source of funding for public land acquisition and recreation infrastructure. We’re still getting mixed beta from Senate offices and members of Congress about whether it’ll get re-authorized — either permanently or temporarily — and at what level, but we’re staying optimistic in these final days of the session.

Which brings me to the primary topic of this policy update – what will the midterm election results and a new Congress in 2019 mean for backcountry skiers who love public lands?

As you will have heard by now, Democrats won enough House races to take back control of the House of Representatives next year, while Republicans maintained control of the Senate. For the past two years, all three branches of government have been controlled by one party, but starting in January we’ll return to a divided government. In the House, the Democrats will control the agenda, forcing both the White House and Republican-controlled Senate to negotiate with them. Given our partisan politics, we expect there will be a lot of vilifying going on too, with each party continuing to focus on blaming the other for the nation’s woes. So, what do we think this means for public lands?

  • Legislation: We expect the scariest legislative threats – such as large-scale public lands transfers and attempts to gut environmental laws – to fade. These attacks on public lands and the public process have been driven by House Republicans and now they don’t have the votes to move these extreme proposals. At the same time, with a hyper-partisan divided Congress, we’re not sure that Congress will get much done in the legislative arena at all.
  • Investigations: With Democrats taking control of the House, we’re expecting a lot of investigations into the conduct and decision-making of Trump Administration officials. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is likely to be on the hot seat as Legislators look into his decisions to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, among other controversial actions of the past two years.
  • Confirmations:The Republicans have strengthened their majority in the Senate, which will likely make it easier for the President to get the 60 votes needed to confirm his nominees, from the Courts to the Cabinet. Many federal appointments are currently vacant and the rumor mill is churning with word that Secretary Zinke is on his way out. Although Zinke has been a huge disappointment for public lands enthusiasts, we’re not optimistic about who his replacement might be. In fact, there are some frightening nominees waiting in the wings to take positions across the federal public lands agencies. It’s no secret that the Trump Administration and Senate Republicans are highly motivated to change the federal judiciary by confirming as many conservative judges as possible. This will have a delayed, but major, effect on environmental and administrative law, with conservative judges likely giving less deference to land management agencies in how they interpret the laws that govern public lands management.
  • Pressure on the Agencies: It’s not unusual to see members of Congress putting pressure on the Forest Service or other land management agencies. Most recently, we saw members of the Congressional Western Caucus weighing in on winter travel planning in California and asking the Forest Service to re-evaluate any potential restrictions on snowmobile use and even to reconsider the planning process itself. With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

We’ll see how these predictions play out in the coming year. For the next week or so, we’ll remain focused on the lame duck session, with fingers crossed that we can get a few things across the finish line in the next couple of weeks!

 

 

 

 

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director

Public Comment Deadline is March 1, 2019: Comment Now!

With our local partners at Friends of Plumas Wilderness, we support the forest’s preferred Alternative 2 with specific modifications from Alternative 5.

OUR TAKE: We like that Alternative 2 protects terrain east of Bucks Lake Wilderness, the Bucks Creek Loop Trail, the Historic Lost Sierra Ski Traverse Route, and the backcountry ski zone on Thompson Peak by Susanville. We urge that the Forest Service also include specific amendments from Alternative 5 to protect proposed Middle Feather, Bucks Creek, Chips, Grizzly, & Adams Peak Wilderness Areas, Lakes Basin Snowshoe and Ski Trails, Little Jamison Basin and to stop grooming on 24N33 to help prevent OSV trespass into the Bucks Lake Wilderness.

October has been a busy month here at Winter Wildlands Alliance! Last week, we wrapped up a meeting in Boise with other conservation partners, representatives from snowmobiling organizations, Forest Service staff, state biologists, and Fish and Wildlife Services biologists. We came together to talk about how winter recreation impacts wolverines, and to start working toward science-based recommendations that we can all agree on for managing winter recreation in wolverine habitat. It was just the first meeting of many, but we’re optimistic and excited to engage with such a broad range of partners in a collaborative manner.

Meanwhile, we’re nearing the end of the public comment period for the Chugach Forest Plan. The Chugach, America’s northernmost national forest, is soliciting public feedback on the draft EIS they have developed. The Chugach features spectacular coastal mountains with some of the best and wildest backcountry terrain in the world. In this planning process we’re advocating for Alternative D. Comment now (Public comment period ends November 1)!

Also in Alaska, we’re continuing the engage in the Wrangell-St Elias National Park backcountry management plan. Right now the Park Service is looking for comments from those who have personal connections to Wrangell-St Elias. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Wrangell-St Elias, please consider telling the Park Service about your experience. Comments are due October 31.

We directed a lot of attention to Alaska in October but Utah is on our radar as well. Alaska has been working on getting an exemption to the Roadless Rule in order to open up untouched coastal rainforests on the Tongass to commercial logging (that comment period ended October 15). Now Utah is drafting a petition, asking the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service for an exemption to the federal Rule and permission to write a state-specific Rule, just like Alaska. We’re working with our Utah-based grassroots groups to stand up for roadless lands in Utah. Stay tuned to our channels in case the opportunity arises for people outside of Utah to weigh in!

We’re also still working to save LWCF. Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund expire on September 30. There are two bills that would permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF – Senate bill S. 569 and House bill H.R. 6759. Please contact your Senators and Representative and ask them to both support these bills and push for a vote before the end of the year.

And hot off the press: the Plumas National Forest just published a draft EIS for its winter travel plan. Public comments are due December 10. Stay tuned for our outreach on that!

Finally, don’t forget to vote (and vote for public lands!) on November 6!