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.

 

 

 

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

There are a bunch of reasons I became a member of Winter Wildlands Alliance years ago. I could say that it was because I wanted to support protecting, advocating, leading policy and speaking for the places I seek refuge and solace during the winter, providing a community through the Backcountry Film Festival and tour, fostering future winter players through SnowSchool, creating a movement of passionate people and organizations supporting human powered adventure…really, it wasn’t around one initiative or because of a certain event, but it was because I wanted to drop my hard-earned dollar to support what I knew. Having amazing experiences in the backcountry.

We all have our paths and throughout my work and play, mine led me here. Thanks to Sarah Michael (founder of Winter Wildlands Alliance), our engaged and driven Board of Directors, and an extra-large shout out to Mark Menlove for all of his work over the past 14 years, and of course, the incredible team that is the staff that keeps the skin track clear. We have exciting times ahead and I’m humbled to be the new Executive Director of such a vibrant and engaged group of hard working people. That means you, too. Winter Wildlands Alliance members are at the core of who we are, so thank you. As winter and spring slowly transition into the warm weather months, we are still working. What we do goes on 365 days a year – it’s our business to keep growing, keep defending our winter ecosystems and wild places to make a difference and protect the places we recreate, find solace, find peace and create exceptional experiences. So if you aren’t a member, please join us. If you are, thank you. I am looking forward to Keeping Winter Wild with you.

Todd Walton
Executive Director

Making tracks in Yellowstone National Park, photo by Hilary Eisen

Although it’s been pretty cold across the Snowbelt lately, things have been hot on the public lands front! Especially in D.C., where Congress just passed the biggest public lands bill in a decade. On Tuesday, February 26, the House passed the public lands package (S47, the Natural Resources Management Act) by a vote of 363-62. Two weeks earlier the Senate passed the same bill 92-8. Now the bill heads to the President’s desk, where we expect he will sign it into law.

The public lands package permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protects backcountry ski terrain in the Methow Headwaters (WA) and near Yellowstone National Park (in MT) from industrial-scale mining, and designates 1.3 million acres of new Wilderness, among many other public land protections. This bill was the culmination of years of hard work by the outdoor recreation and conservation community and we’re super excited that it has passed. You can send a message thanking Congress for passing the public lands package using this form. We’d love to see this Congress continue to support – and fund – public lands, so it’s important to thank them for the good work they’ve done so far.

Outside the Beltway, the big thing we’ve been working on this month has been to review the Tahoe National Forest’s draft winter travel plan. The Tahoe published a final EIS and draft Record of Decision on February 8. Overall they’ve done a pretty good job – despite a highly contentious planning process, the Tahoe has produced a draft plan that clearly aims to meet the interests of all stakeholders while also protecting natural resources and complying with the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. The draft plan protects most of the priority ski zones that we’ve advocated for and their analysis is the most robust that we’ve seen to date (they considered a wide range of alternatives, including a couple that were very conservation-focused). However, we’d still like to see some protection for non-motorized use in a couple of high-profile spots on the forest, we’re not thrilled that they’re proposing to allow OSV use adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail (a Congressionally designated non-motorized trail), and we’re disappointed that they’ve reversed course on using minimum snow depth as a management tool to protect soils and vegetation from over-snow vehicle impacts. Objections are due March 22.

In other news, this week marks the first full week in over 14 years where Mark Menlove has not been at the helm of Winter Wildlands Alliance. We’re excited to see what he accomplishes in his new role as Idaho State Director for The Nature Conservancy, and we’re actively searching for a new Executive Director. The application deadline for this position closed on March 6, 2019.

That’s all for now – February is a short month so it’s a short policy update!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director