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


OA+Climate+Rec+Impacts+(1)

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

Shutdown forces closure of Mt. Rainier National Park to vehicles. KOMO News Photo  (Click to read full story.)

As the federal government shutdown drags on, its impacts are being felt by people across the country and in all walks of life, including backcountry skiers and other snowsports enthusiasts.

The vast majority of winter backcountry recreation occurs on Forest Service and Park Service lands, and since the shutdown began most of the people who care for these lands and manage the recreation that occurs upon them have been temporarily laid off from their jobs. 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed and those who are working must do so without a paycheck. Although in some places volunteers and partner organizations have stepped in to pick up trash and stock and clean outhouses, or even pay some federal employees so that they can do their jobs, this only makes up for a very small amount of what the federal agencies do. Of course backcountry skiers and the public at large, prefer to be able to access and enjoy public lands, but access without management can lead to big issues.

Access and Safety

Photo credit: National Park Service

Many of the roads and trailheads that are normally plowed for winter access are not currently being plowed or maintained. For example, all vehicle access to Rainier National Park is closed during the shutdown, and while you can walk in, there’s nowhere to park outside of the Park, therefore essentially eliminating access to Rainier. With Rainier closed, ski guides and avalanche courses are re-routing to places on Forest Service land, such as Mt Baker, increasing crowding in already busy areas.

While there are some roads on federal land that are plowed by non-federal entities, or roads that access communities and therefore must be plowed for the purposes of public safety (such as the road through Yellowstone National Park that accesses Cooke City, MT), agency staff are not able to respond to emergency calls. Although local search and rescue teams remain active, the lack of agency staffing may slow down rescues because search and rescue teams won’t have access to valuable information and logistical support. Therefore, those venturing into the backcountry, and even remote frontcountry areas, are at an elevated risk.

Trail grooming is also curtailed during the shutdown. In some areas local businesses are stepping up to cover grooming costs because their business depends on visitor access to groomed trails. Of course, in many places local partners already do the bulk of trail grooming and this grooming is not impacted by the shutdown. But, many cross-country ski trails are maintained by the Forest Service or Park Service and these trails will not be groomed during the shutdown.

Park Service Plan Would Fund Maintenance During Shutdown (Montana Public Radio)

Finally, although law enforcement staff and avalanche forecasters are still working during the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential for public safety, they’re not getting paid. For weeks. Think about that the next time you check the avalanche forecast.

Management and Stewardship

During past shutdowns National Parks have been closed to public entry, but the Trump administration has changed this policy, keeping most of the gates open despite not having any staff on hand to manage visitation. As a result, trash and filthy outhouses in National Parks have gotten a lot of press over the last couple of weeks. These are highly visible reminders of some of the essential services that federal employees provide for the public. In many places, especially popular winter recreation areas and National Parks, volunteers have stepped in to empty trash cans and clean or re-stock outhouses. Stories about the public helping to care for public lands in this visceral way have made the rounds from National Public Radio to local newspapers. However, stewardship runs much deeper than trash and toilet paper and visitor management is much more than cleaning up after the visitors. Public land managers maintain facilities, protect natural resources, and help the public to better understand and appreciate the places they visit, among many other duties.

Photo Credit: Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless (via Facebook)

Unfortunately, some in the motorized community see the government shutdown as an opportunity to ride in Wilderness areas and other places that are closed to motor vehicles to protect natural resources, wildlife, or opportunities for quiet recreation. Stories and photos of snowmobiles riding past “no snowmobiling” signs, or high-marking Wilderness bowls are proliferating across social media as the shutdown continues. We’re quite disappointed in the lack of respect that this behavior demonstrates and we hope that our counterparts in the motorized community will soon speak out against such activities. If you see illegal snowmobile use you can document it and report it to the local Forest Service office once it re-opens. Documentation should include geo-located photos (use a smartphone), identifying features such as license plates or registration stickers, and any other information that will help law enforcement investigate and cite violators.

National Parks Face Years of Damage from Government Shutdown (National Geographic)

Finally, right now, all planning – from forest plans to timber sales – is on hold, adding delay to already lengthy processes. Partnerships, collaboratives, and other non-governmental efforts that complement these planning processes are ongoing, but without a major partner at the table – the Forest Service/BLM/Park Service – there’s only so much everybody else can do.

Research and Education

All Forest Service and Park Service/Department of Interior SnowSchool sites are closed during the shutdown. Every year Winter Wildlands Alliance’s 65-site National SnowSchool program introduces thousands of students to winter ecology and the joy of exploring public lands on snowshoes. Pulling this off depends on a complex series of community partnerships/collaborations at the local level. Every community and SnowSchool site is structured a little different, but many SnowSchool sites depend on the USFS or NPS/DOI playing a critical leadership role.

Government Shutdown Causes Slowdown in Scientific Research (NPR NEWS)

During the shutdown USFS and NPS conservation education and interpretation staff are furloughed (placing significant financial stress on these professionals). And as most public schools are back this week from the holiday break, we have seen the first wave of cancelled SnowSchool field trips. Thus far this scenario applies to about a dozen SnowSchool sites. It is difficult to gauge the cumulative impact of this as the shutdown is ongoing. However, hundreds of students can be served by just a handful of sites during a single day of SnowSchool. So if the shutdown continues it could impact thousands of would-be SnowSchool students. With a finite number of winter days and site coordinators’ limited ability to reschedule, this likely means many kids will miss out on their SnowSchool experience this year.

The good news is that SnowSchool sites operated by nordic centers, nature centers, school districts and other non-profits are still open and taking out their first groups of students this week!

Weather station maintenance – one of many services on hold during the shutdown

The shutdown is also impacting many scientific research efforts. Some of these projects directly tie into the work we do, and many more are critical to understanding climate change and snow. For example, WWA SnowSchool’s plans to collaborate with the 2019 NASA SnowEx campaign are on hold due to the shutdown. During SnowEx, NASA aircraft fly overhead in states across the West and scan mountain snowpack with new sophisticated sensors designed to detect snow water content. The plan was to have students at SnowSchool sites in relevant locations hand-collect snowpack data and send it to NASA scientists to be compared with aircraft gathered data. This would give students a very authentic citizen science learning experience! But with NASA scientists furloughed during the critical project preparation period, 2019 SnowEx may or may not be rebooted.

To help students learn more about the science of snow, WWA partnered with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in 2015 to install an innovative new SnowSchool Weather Station at the National Flagship Site in Boise. Though the RMRS is closed due to the shutdown, the station continues to collect data. Problems with data collection/display may occur however if the weather station instruments needs maintenance during this period.

Similarly, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s SNOTEL station data remains accessible for now. This is important as many student across the West study historical and current snowpack data from their local SNOTEL site as part of their SnowSchool experience. The SNOTEL program runs on funds from the previous year’s budget.

Shutdown Highlights a Larger Issue

The government shutdown has led to extensive environmental damage, restricted access, a halt in planning, and interruption of important scientific research, as well as lost wages and financial stress for hundreds of thousands people. On the bright side, this shutdown is demonstrating just how important of a role federal employees and the Agencies they work for play in protecting and managing public lands.

Visitors Chainsaw Iconic Joshua Trees in National Park During Shutdown (LiveScience)

For decades Congress has been tightening the screws on our land management agencies. The Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service all struggle with declining budgets, diminishing resources, and increased responsibility and visitor use. Our public land agencies need the funding and resources necessary to overcome infrastructure and planning backlogs and take on new challenges. People are constantly clamoring for new trails, access points, facilities, and designations but all of these take additional resources. Doing more with less only gets us so far. Congress needs to not only end the shutdown, it must also fully fund the land management agencies.

Click here to contact the President and your representatives in Congress today

 

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