The Winter Wildlands Alliance Board of Directors and Staff enthusiastically welcome Todd Walton as the new Executive Director beginning April 8th, 2019. Todd comes to Winter Wildlands Alliance as a member, avid backcountry enthusiast, adventurer, and advocate. His many years of experience in the outdoor and winter sports industries — combined with a deep-rooted passion for our mission, our organization, and wild winter refuges — create the foundation for the next chapters in our growing movement.

During our search, we sought candidates who could both grow our organization and expand our outreach, as well as stay true to the core culture and mission that our staff, members, volunteers, grassroots partners, SnowSchool partners, and Backcountry Film Festival partners have created since our organization was founded in 2000. We feel honored that so many talented, passionate, and qualified members of the community expressed interest in leading this organization. The energy under the surface of the movement is deep and vital.

“Being in the backcountry offers an experience that is more and more necessary as it connects the individual to the self and the natural world,” says Walton. “I’m humbled and honored to be leading such an amazing group of people doing collaborative work in policy, advocacy, education, and events that make experiences like these possible. The community built around Winter Wildlands has the potential and responsibility to speak bigger and bolder for the soul of winter.”

Todd brings 20 years of outdoor industry experience as a global brand communications and marketing leader, business owner, and trade executive for brands that include Outdoor Research, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Snowsports Industries America, and Outdoor Industry Association. Additionally, he has served on the board of numerous conservation, recreation, and tourism nonprofits, notably as president of Washington Trails Association. We at Winter Wildlands Alliance are fortunate to have a dynamic new leader with such breadth and depth of experience.

“As a longtime Winter Wildlands member and enthusiast, Todd has recognized and celebrated the importance of our mission for many years,” says Board President John Garder. “Working with the board and our talented and dedicated staff, Todd will bring substantial experience, acumen, and stoke to the organization as we continue our work to protect the places so many people treasure.”

Please join us in welcoming Todd! He can be reached via email at: twalton@winterwildlands.org and welcomes your insights, comments, and questions on what’s coming next.

At the crossroads of conservation and recreation, Winter Wildlands Alliance is the national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered winter sports experience. We are proud to support more than 100 grassroots environmental organizations and backcountry partners, advocating for policies that preserve and protect wild winter refuge on public lands.

Keeping Winter Wild,

Winter Wildlands Alliance Board of Directors

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

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