Silverton Heli-Ski Expansion

The BLM is considering permitting expanded heli-ski terrain in the Silverton, CO backcountry.  The problem?  The areas in question include easily-accessed frontcountry terrain (including groomed trails!) and popular backcountry ski areas.  Local skiers are worried about being displaced from their favorite spots and are asking the BLM to think about ways to better balance heli-skiing with other backcountry uses.  The BLM has released a preliminary environmental assessment and is accepting public comments on the proposal until December 12.

While we aren’t opposed to heli-skiing, and we’d like to see Silverton Mountain and Silverton Guides continue to thrive, we have serious concerns about this proposal. If the BLM allows Silverton Guides to expand their heli operation into the areas they’ve requested they will be heli-skiing in places that are already heavily used by backcountry skiers, Nordic skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.  This is certain to cause conflict and displace existing uses – after all, would you want a helicopter landing on top of you in avalanche terrain? We would like Silverton Guides to consider different, more remote, areas to expand into.

 

Comments are due December 10.  Your comments should outline what your concerns are but also offer recommendations on how to improve or alter this proposal.  This could include simply sticking with the status quo (the “no action” alternative).  Don’t forget to include your: name, address, and familiarity with areas in question.  The subject of your email to the BLM should read “Silverton Guides EA”

Talking points you may want to include in your comments:
  • Areas proposed for heli-ski expansion overlap with popular backcountry skiing areas posing safety risks and user conflicts.  Areas close to town and easily accessible by human-powered recreationists should be avoided.  There is plenty of other terrain easily accessible by helicopter that is too remote to access by foot and would therefore not create conflict between users.  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing in areas close to town that are used by human-powered skiers.
  • Areas proposed for heli-ski expansion pose avalanche hazard directly over open county roads (CR110 and CR 2).  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing above open or groomed roads.
  • Noise impacts from helicopter use and avalanche bombing in downtown Silverton.  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing in areas close to town.
  • Minimal analysis of impact to Lynx and wintering Elk.  Recommend input from Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
  • Proposal does not add users days to Silverton Guides permits therefore economic benefits from additional tourism are overstated.  Rather, negative impacts to backcountry skiing and snowmobiling may reduce tourism for these types of recreation.  Ask that the BLM more fully analyze economic impacts.
  • Recommend winter study to assess user impacts and avalanche hazards
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be required to post daily flight plan so backcountry skiers can avoid helicopter use
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be restricted from flying in popular backcountry areas on weekends
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be required to attach Recco reflectors to all bombs before dropping them so that unexploded ordinance can be quickly recovered
  • Recommend a requirement that Silverton Guides staff be AMGA or otherwise certified
Don’t forget, the subject of your email should read “Silverton Guides EA”
September 2016: Lassen National Forest releases draft winter travel plan. As a test case for future winter travel management on forests across the country, it still needs work.

The 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule, which requires that every forest that receives enough snow for winter recreation develop a travel management plan for over-snow vehicles, was a huge policy win for Winter Wildlands Alliance. Now that the Rule is in place, we have shifted our attention to making sure that it gets implemented in a timely and appropriate manner.

On the “timely” end, it’s important to note that not every forest is tackling winter travel planning right off the bat. The process takes time and resources, and we are working with partners across the country — locally and nationally — to move winter travel planning to the top of the priority list for those forests where current over-snow vehicle management is causing conflicts with skiers or impacting forest resources. Right now there are nine National Forests undertaking some level of winter travel management and we’re working to ensure that these early adopters get it right and set good examples for other forests to follow.

The first forest to write a winter travel plan entirely under the new Rule is nearing the finish line. The Lassen National Forest, in California’s northern Sierra, recently published a draft Record of Decision and final Environmental Impact Statement for its winter travel plan. Winter Wildlands Alliance and our partners at Snowlands Network have worked with the Forest Service, local skiers, and other winter recreation stakeholders to find common agreement on how over-snow vehicles should be managed on the Lassen in the future.

After talking with local skiers about where they recreate on the Lassen, and consulting with wildlife biologists and wilderness advocates to learn more about which areas of the forest needed to be protected for conservation reasons, we developed a potential plan (an “Alternative” in Forest Service parlance) for the Forest Service to consider as they weighed their options for what the new winter travel plan would look like. The motorized community also developed an Alternative. In the end, what the Forest Service has chosen as their draft plan is an amalgamation of the two alternatives that we and the snowmobile community developed.

The Selected Alternative, or draft plan, isn’t perfect but it’s pretty good. The Forest Service incorporated most of our recommendations about important non-motorized recreation areas, and the draft plan prohibits winter motorized use in these areas. The plan also prohibits over-snow vehicles (OSVs) in important conservation areas like recommended wilderness and Research Natural Areas. All the same, there is room for improvement. The draft plan would allow OSVs on one of the few official cross-country ski trails on the Lassen National Forest – the Dry Lake trail, which is part of the McGowan cross-country ski trail system – and does not go far enough in protecting quiet non-motorized recreation experiences on and around the McGowan ski trails.

“Open unless designated closed” and “closed unless designated open” may sound like two sides of the same coin, but the difference is more than semantic.

LassenMapWe are particularly interested in how the Lassen approaches the winter travel planning process because it is the test-case for how winter travel planning will occur on other forests across the country. Which is why we need to make sure the OSV Rule is implemented appropriately.

A major piece of the 2015 Rule, which makes over-snow vehicle management different under the new regulations versus how they’re currently managed, is that the Rule specifies that National Forest lands are, by default, closed to OSVs unless they are specifically designated as open. Currently, on most forests, OSVs are allowed anywhere they can physically travel with the exception of areas that are specifically closed. Under the new rule, however, when forests write winter travel plans they are supposed to identify specific areas where OSV use is appropriate and designate those areas as open, with the remainder of the forest being closed by default.

Although “open unless designated closed” and “closed unless designated open” may sound like two sides of the same coin, the difference is more than semantic. A “closed unless designated open” policy requires that the Forest Service take a hard look at how winter motorized use impacts non-motorized recreation, wildlife, and natural resources and then determine where OSV use is truly appropriate. In contrast, the old “open unless designated closed” policy assumes that OSV use is appropriate everywhere unless it can be proven otherwise. Under this policy the vast majority of Forest Service lands are open to winter motorized recreation by default, including critical wildlife winter range, recommended wilderness areas, and sensitive environmental areas. For skiers, this has meant that outside of wilderness, in most of the places where we ski we’ve had to compete with snowmobiles for access to untracked powder, or had to contend with breathing in exhaust and listening to engine brraaps instead of breathing fresh mountain air and soaking up the silence of a winter’s day.

Unfortunately, the Lassen did not set the example we were hoping for when it comes to switching over to a “closed unless designated open” management framework. It’s a big shift, and the Forest Service is not exactly the most nimble agency, so making the shift is sort of like getting a huge ship to change course. The Lassen’s plan does refer to “areas designated for OSV use” and “areas not designated for cross-country OSV use” but in reality the map still shows a forest where OSV use is allowed everywhere except a few distinct areas where it’s prohibited. Low elevation areas that rarely receive snow, including 50% of the forest’s mule deer winter range, remain open to OSVs in the draft plan. The draft plan also fails to provide provide projections for rare and threatened wildlife species such as the Sierra Nevada red fox.

Overall, the draft plan designates 78% of the Lassen National Forest as open to cross-country OSV travel. In short, while the draft plan does prohibit OSV use within most of the important non-motorized recreation areas on the Lassen, it misses the mark when it comes to thoughtfully designating specific areas where OSV use is appropriate and instead relies on the old paradigm of allowing OSV use everywhere except specific areas where it’s prohibited. Of course, we’re not quite finished – it’s only a draft plan right now – and Winter Wildlands Alliance will continue our work to ensure appropriate implementation of the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule.

You can find out more about winter travel planning on the Lassen and other forests in California by visiting our California travel planning page.

Winter Travel Planning on the Shoshone National Forest

Beau Fredlund enjoying some of Montana's classic summer skiing off the Beartooth Highway.
The Shoshone National Forest is currently reviewing public comments on their proposed winter travel management plan (Proposed Action) that they published in the spring of 2016.  The Forest Service is also working on developing additional Alternatives to analyze alongside the Proposed Action.

This winter travel plan will have major repercussions for skiing and snowboarding on the Shoshone National Forest.  The Shoshone bills itself as a wild backcountry forest and indeed, there are some amazing adventures to be had deep in the Wind River, Absaroka, and Beartooth mountains.  What’s at stake in this travel plan, however, and where most skiers go, is the Shoshone’s relatively accessible world-class front-country terrain.  Specifically Togwotee Pass and the Beartooth Pass.

The Proposed Action was developed based on suggestions the Forest Service received from the public as well as from groups like Winter Wildlands Alliance, Togwotee Backcountry Alliance, and the Wyoming Wilderness Association.  You can review the plan, and look at maps of what the Forest Service is proposing, online here.

For the first time ever the Shoshone is considering a set season for winter motorized use: November 15 – April 30 for high elevation areas like Togwotee and the Beartooths and December 1 – April 1 for lower elevation areas.  Implementing these season dates would reduce conflicts between over-snow vehicles and wildlife and is a balanced way for skiers and snowmobilers to share the Beartooth Pass while recognizing that the two user groups have traditionally used this area during different and distinct seasons.  These season dates also bring the Shoshone in line with how it’s neighbor, the Bridger-Teton, manages winter use on Togwotee Pass.

We are also pleased to see that the Shoshone is proposing to formally close the cross-country ski trails on Togwotee Pass to motorized use (excepting grooming).  The local trails group in Dubois – DART – spends a lot of resources grooming these trails for skiing and their efforts can be completely undermined by just one or two irresponsible OSV users.  By closing, and signing, these areas cross-country skiers on Togwotee Pass will finally have non-motorized trails to enjoy.

We are also advocating that the Forest Service consider implementing a minimum snow depth restriction of 18 inches to ensure that over-snow vehicle use is only occurring when there’s enough snow to protect the underlying vegetation and that they consider protecting additional wildlife habitat in the Dubois area.

The Shoshone National Forest will hold public meetings the week of March 20th to discuss the status of the travel management planning process.  During these meetings, the Forest Service will update the public as to why there has been a pause in the process, explain the next steps in developing a minimum road system, and present an updated timeline for the process.

Meetings will be held at the following times and locations:

  • March 21, Lander Community Center, 950 Buena Vista Drive, Lander, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
  • March 22, Headwaters Art and Convention Center, 20 Stalnaker St., Dubois, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
  • March 23, Grizzly Hall, Park County Library, 1500 Heart Mountain Street, Cody, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.

For information and updates on the Shoshone National Forest’s travel management process, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/shoshone/home/?cid=stelprd3846526

 

 

 

Today the Bitterroot National Forest took an important step in protecting wild and quiet winter landscapes.  In the newly published Bitterroot Travel Plan the Forest Service brings travel management on the Bitterroot up to speed with the management direction in the existing forest plan and in line with regulations set forth in the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle Rule to minimize snowmobile impacts on the forest and other users.

In writing this travel plan the Bitterroot National Forest did something we rarely see – Forest Supervisor Julie King acknowledged that motorized recreation has a disproportionate impact on non-motorized recreationists.  Rather than considering motor vehicle designations in a vacuum, the Bitterroot National Forest recognized the interplay between motorized and non-motorized recreation and wrote a travel plan that minimizes the impact of motorized recreation on quiet users and on forest resources. While this may seem obvious, many forests choose to undertake motorized travel planning in isolation, leading to plans that don’t account for how motorized and non-motorized recreation experiences are intertwined. By recognizing these impacts and designating motorized routes and areas appropriately, the travel plan proactively works to minimize conflicts between uses and aims to improve the quality of all types of recreational experiences. This benefits everybody who visits the forest.

The new travel plan protects important wildlife habitat and restores opportunities for quiet winter travel within Wilderness Study Areas and areas that have been recommended for Wilderness on the Bitterroot National Forest.  It also protects skier experiences at the Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area by making permanent a motorized closure that was previously based on temporary forest orders.

While the new plan isn’t perfect – after all, its starting point is a 29 year old forest plan – it is a great step toward bringing balance to our winter backcountry.  We recognize the plan creates heartburn for our mountain biking partners by closing some trails in Wilderness Study Areas and Recommended Wilderness to bikes. However, Winter Wildlands Alliance supports the Bitterroot in its management approach to recommended wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. We also support addressing mountain biking concerns in the upcoming forest plan, a big-picture document that guides everything from travel management to timber sales. This forest plan revision, which the Bitterroot is set to begin soon, is an opportunity to re-assess which areas of the forest should be managed to protect Wilderness values and where other uses, like mountain biking, should be allowed.

We want to give the Forest Service a big high-five for their work on this travel plan. You can help us out by taking a moment to email Forest Supervisor Julie King (jkking@fs.fed.us) and let her know that the Bitterroot Travel Plan is a great step toward balance in the backcountry.

 

Protecting the Backcounty

Together, the Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests cover nearly 4.6 million acres of public land in the Southern Sierra, including Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, the Kern River, the Needles climbing area, the Buttermilks, and some of the wildest, most dramatic sections of the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail. These three forests offer some of the best alpine climbing, bouldering, backcountry skiing, whitewater boating, mountain biking, trail running, and backpacking in the world, all within a short drive of the largest and fastest-growing population centers in the West.

The Forest Service is currently in the final stages of planning for how it will manage these areas and activities for the next 20-30 years. At stake are things like recreation access, infrastructure development and maintenance, trails, scenic viewsheds, permitting for guides, outfitters and educational groups, wilderness designations, and the possibility of new scenarios for stewardship and forest partnerships.

Furthermore, as “early-adopters” in this new planning process, these forests will set the tone and framework for upcoming planning on other forests in California and across the country. Winter Wildlands Alliance is working on these forest plans with local partners Friends of the Inyo, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation (MLTPA), the Eastern Sierra Recreation Collaborative and others, as well as our national coalition partners at Outdoor Alliance.

The Forest Service published draft plans for the Inyo, Sierra, and Sequoia in May 2016.  We worked throughout the summer of 2016 to help skiers and other outdoor recreationists comment on the plans – providing input on how they could be improved to better address quiet recreation, protect forest resources, and ensure that these forests remain spectacular for generations to come.

 

Public Informational Meeting, Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes

Draft Plan Documents