Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers lobby U.S. Forest Service to adopt shared-use plan for the Lookout Pass backcountry area (Spokesman-Review)

The longest-ever government shutdown ended late last week. During the shutdown all of the land management and travel planning that we work on was on hold, as most Forest Service and Park Service employees were furloughed. Despite the shutdown, however, the Department of Interior continued to move ahead with changing how they respond to Freedom of Information Act Requests (comments due January 28) and permitting drilling in the Arctic Refuge (comments due February 11). We are working with our Outdoor Alliance partners to comment on both of these DOI actions.

Last week we published a blog post detailing some of the impacts that the government shutdown is having on public lands and winter recreation. We expect that as the government re-opens all of the planning processes that are on-going will pick up where they left off. Time-sensitive scientific research, however, may have to be postponed until next year or cancelled altogether. For example, NASA announced last week that it would be postponing its SnowEx campaign until 2020. Not only is this a lost opportunity for SnowSchool students who would have assisted with data collection this winter, it is a setback to gathering valuable information about Western snowpack.

We also expect that things won’t be back to normal right away even with the government re-opened. For example, it will take time to re-open roads and trailheads that have not been plowed for weeks (like in Rainer National Park). The shutdown will have longer-term implications as well. This is the time of year when the Forest Service and other agencies hire their summer crews and apply for grants to fund recreation programs. Not being able to work for most of January has put the Forest Service, Park Service, and BLM behind in their summer hiring and it’s possible that not all offices will be fully staffed for summer. Likewise, if grant deadlines passed during the shutdown or agency staff don’t have time to get a grant in between when they’re back at work and the grant deadline, they won’t have the funding needed run recreation programs.

Although planning was on hold for most of January, comment deadlines weren’t delayed because of the shutdown. Comments on the Plumas National Forest’s winter travel plan draft EIS were due on January 24th and we worked with our California partners to make sure Plumas skiers got their comments in. David travelled to Quincy, CA for a couple of great outreach events put on by Friends of Plumas Wilderness (including screenings of Jeremy Jones’ Ode to Muir and the Backcountry Film Festival) to help rally skiers to comment on the Plumas travel plan.

Also this month, I travelled to Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border to participate in a collaborative meeting with the Stevens Peak Backcountry Coalition (which includes several groups, such as the Spokane Mountaineers and Montana Backcountry Alliance), snowmobile clubs from the Montana and Idaho sides of Lookout Pass, and the Lookout Pass ski area. At stake is a high-value winter recreation zone and backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, and the ski resort are working together to find agreement on how to share and manage the area.

Finally, we were excited to see our newest grassroots group, Teton Backcountry Alliance host a fun and well-attended event aimed at raising awareness around access to Teton Pass. Teton Pass is an extremely popular backcountry ski zone, but access is not guaranteed if skier activity threatens the safety of people driving on the road.

This week the entire Winter Wildlands Alliance crew is headed to the winter Outdoor Retailer show. If you’re in Denver, come find us at the show or join us for the Night of Stoke, featuring an exclusive lineup of films from the Backcountry Film Festival (and beyond) and presentations from featured outdoor adventurers, athletes, and activists about how to turn passion into action.

 

 

 

 

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director

Flikr photo by Michiel van Nimwegen

Skiers, snowmobilers, conservationists and other winter recreation stakeholders come together to help protect and find ways to co-exist with the iconic mountain carnivore

Known for its ability to cover distance quicker than a Nordie with perfectly waxed skis, and to cruise up and over mountains faster than the gnarliest ski-mo racer, the wolverine is among the most iconic of winter wildlife species. Skiers, snowmobilers, and others who love spending time in snowy places feel a special affinity with and appreciation for wolverines. Like wolverines, we’re snow-dependent critters who are facing a serious threat because of climate change. Unlike wolverines, we can handle a crowd — even if we’d prefer not to.

Winter recreation stakeholders and conservationists working together to find common ground and develop recommendations for the Forest Service.

Winter Wildlands Alliance has been working with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies to reach out to the backcountry Snowsports community with information about wolverines, how our activities impact the species, and how we might mitigate that impact.

Unfortunately for all concerned, new research shows that backcountry winter recreation — snowmobiling and backcountry skiing alike — impacts wolverines. With help from skiers and snowmobilers using GPS units to track their own movement in the backcountry, scientists discovered that wolverines strongly avoid areas with lots of human activity, whether we’re snowmobiling, skiing, or just tromping through the woods on snowshoes.

Wolverines may use areas adjacent to popular winter recreation areas, and they may pass through areas with heavy recreation pressure, but they’re not sticking around in places where there are lots of people. In short, wolverines don’t den, rest, or eat in places that get a lot of backcountry ski or snowmobile use — even if those places are part of a larger wolverine home range. This is called “functional habitat loss,” and it poses a real concern for wolverine survival.

Wolverine and ski tracks, Moose Basin, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Forrest McCarthy

The conservation concern here is two-fold. First, wildlife biology 101 tells us that an animal’s home range is the minimum amount of space that an individual requires to live and reproduce. If backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are effectively eliminating portions of a wolverine’s home range, it’s likely we’re having a negative effect on that wolverine’s ability to make a living and reproduce. And since wolverines are pretty rare, impacts to even a few individuals could have population-level impacts.

Second, because of climate change, there are (and will continue to be) fewer and fewer places for all of us — skiers, snowmobilers, and wolverines — to find snow. Pair this loss of snow with a growing interest in backcountry snowsports and new tools and toys that help us travel deeper into the backcountry than ever before, and wolverines may have a tough time finding snowy places that aren’t overly impacted by humans.

The good news is that with some self-imposed restraint we — the backcountry snowsports community — can help reduce our impact on these tough but vulnerable animals, without greatly impacting our own opportunities for fun and exploration in winter.

We’re all familiar with the concept of suburban sprawl. Now think about your favorite backcountry area and how recreation use can sprawl across the landscape as people seek out the next untracked peak or meadow. By limiting that sprawl, we can limit the functional habitat loss that wolverines are experiencing.

As tempting as it is to explore deeper and further into the backcountry, by sticking within established and agreed-upon recreation areas when skiing and snowmobiling in wolverine habitat, you can help reduce your personal impact on the species. And, if we all limit our personal impact, together we can make a big difference in wolverine survival.

For more information, check out the following brochure that we recently produced in partnership with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies.

Wolverine Final Brochure

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

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!

Carston Oliver, Wasatch Mountains, UT. Photo by Adam Clark

The state of Utah is gathering public comments to inform a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to propose scaling back or entirely doing away with Roadless protections on national forests across the state. Please take action today to Keep the Wasatch Wild!

The Roadless Rule helps protect backcountry areas on our national forests — like those on the Wasatch — from unnecessary road building, logging, and development. It’s intended to “provide lasting protection in the context of multiple-use management” for the 60 million acres of roadless areas on our National Forests and Grasslands. Extensive road building in conjunction with commercial timber is prohibited on these roadless areas, but they are still open for lots of different recreational activities, including backcountry skiing (and snowmobiling, hiking, climbing, hunting, mountain biking, etc.). While these areas are protected from new development, the Roadless Rule is less restrictive than Wilderness areas in terms of what it does and does not allow.

The Roadless Rule is widely supported by the public. But as with many environmental protections in these times, it’s under attack. Earlier this year, Alaska lawmakers tried to get an exemption from the Roadless Rule included into the Congressional spending bill. But the public spoke up against this and lawmakers dropped the attack. Then Alaska decided to ask the Department of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service) for an exemption to the Rule and permission to write its own, Alaska-specific Rule. Permission was granted to Alaska and now Utah is clamoring to be next in line.

Lawmakers claim to be open to the idea of keeping some areas protected as they are today. But if Utah is allowed to move forward with writing its own version of the Roadless Rule, it could open up a number of prime backcountry ski zones (and other recreation areas) to unnecessary development. This rulemaking process will also swallow up a ton of the Forest Service’s time trying to unnecessarily revise a Rule that works well and is popular with the public.

Unlike the Forest Service’s existing 371,000-mile road network, which has an estimated $3.2 billion maintenance backlog, the Roadless Rule is not in need of repair. We don’t need more roads in Utah’s backcountry when we can’t even maintain the ones we already have. Help get the message across to Governor Herbert – Utah should leave the Roadless Rule alone.

Take Action to Protect Roadless Lands in Utah! 

Use the form below to send in a comment to the Governor’s Office