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March 2018 Policy Update: Hard Work Paying Off

We’re officially into spring now, and as much as we at Winter Wildlands Alliance love coldsmoke powder days, there’s nothing quite like Nordic crust cruising or skiing steep corn in the sunshine. The days are getting longer and the season for long distance tours is upon us. Happy Spring!

March has been filled with meetings and travel for Winter Wildlands Alliance staff and we’ve been busy working on all fronts of public lands advocacy — and seen some encouraging successes (good news at the end of this post)!

Talkin’ winter rec policy at the Sangree Hut.

Forest and Travel Planning

During the first few days of March our policy director, Hilary, drove down to Leadville, CO for the annual Backcountry Snowsports Initiative (BSI) hut trip. Originally called the Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, one of the three founding organizations that created Winter Wildlands Alliance, it’s now a program within the Colorado Mountain Club. BSI unites winter organizations and enthusiasts in Colorado. Each year BSI brings land managers, hut owners, and backcountry advocates to the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s Sangree Hut to discuss advocacy issues that affect winter recreation. It’s always a great opportunity to connect with our Colorado partners.

On the way to Leadville, Hilary stopped in Red Lodge, MT to meet with the local district ranger and discuss the comments we recently submitted for the Custer Gallatin forest plan revision. Stopping in Red Lodge also gave her the chance to attend a Backcountry Film Festival screening, hosted by our local grassroots group Beartooth Recreational Trails Association. They had a packed house and an awesome raffle!

And on the way home to Montana from Colorado Hilary stopped in Cody, WY to meet with the Shoshone National Forest. The Shoshone is the one forest outside of California that is currently working on a forest-wide winter travel plan, and they have a new forest supervisor and a new planning lead. It was great to have the opportunity to meet with the new staff, educate them about human-powered winter recreation on the Shoshone, and fill them in on what we’ve been advocating for in the travel planning process. It sounds like we’ll be seeing a draft EIS for the Shoshone plan in June.

Spring snow at the edge of the Tahoe National Forest

We’re expecting a draft EIS for the Tahoe winter travel plan and a final EIS for the Lassen winter travel plan any day now (by April 1, we’re told), with a draft EIS for the Eldorado NF plan shortly after. When those drop we’ll get the word out and analyze them as quickly as possible. Stay tuned to our channels or sign up to be part of our California Action Team to help us ensure that these forests have in place balanced winter management plans that provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources.

Forest Service Policy and Partnerships

The Forest Service is currently re-evaluating how they approach the NEPA process and they’ve been holding meetings in each Region to solicit advice on what to do. We attended the Region One and Region Five Environmental Analysis and Decision Making roundtables. Attending the Roundtables was a good opportunity to make our suggestions and concerns heard. There was also a public comment period recently on the “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” (we had a blog post about it a couple of months ago and worked with Outdoor Alliance to submit this comment letter). All of this is in part to comply with President Trump’s goal of streamlining environmental analyses and eliminating “unnecessary” regulatory burdens. We’re pretty leery of the reasons behind this effort, but do agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient in their approach to NEPA.

Also this month, our advocacy director, David, traveled to Sacramento, CA to attend the Forest Service’s Region 5 quarterly regional leadership team meeting and to serve on a panel about recreation access on public lands, alongside the Blue Ribbon Coalition, the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition and Youth Outside. He also updated the roomful of forest supervisors on the mixed results of a last-minute stakeholder collaborative convened on the Lassen National Forest winter travel plan. Despite those shortcomings, there was general consensus across the panel that improving agency partnerships with organizations and communities and engaging in better collaborative planning and management will be the way forward.

With the Conservation Alliance in D.C.

Congress

Our Executive Director, Mark, was in D.C. earlier this month with the Conservation Alliance. In addition to educating the full Conservation Alliance delegation on winter travel planning and other issues important to the backcountry community during the Conservation Policy Training day, Mark joined member company representatives from the Rocky Mountain region to meet with Congressional offices from Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho. The group conveyed our support and thanks for specific efforts such as the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and Recreation not Red Tape Act as well as overarching efforts including full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, while voicing strong concern with two bills that would release Wilderness Study Areas in Montana and another two that would codify the Trump Administration’s recent rollbacks of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.

As always, you can stay up-to-date on legislation we’re tracking by checking in on the bill tracker page on our website!

The Tongass National Forest: saved (for now) from new roads and clear-cutting

Mark’s visit was timely, as Congress was working on finalizing a spending bill, the details of which were released late last week. One would think the spending bill should just affect spending, which is important in and of itself because it sets how much funding public land agencies and important programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund will receive. However, Congress being Congress, the spending bill is also full of unrelated riders. We were particularly concerned about two riders Senator Murkowski inserted into the bill which would exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule and open up millions of acres of currently protected land for road building, logging, and development.

And finally some good news…

Thankfully, due to an outpouring of opposition from the outdoor recreation community, conservation community, and others who value wild unroaded lands, Murkowski’s riders were removed from the bill. In other good news, the final spending bill includes a 10-year wildfire funding fix and continues funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, at a slightly higher level than last year. However, even this slightly increased level of funding for LWCF is still less than half of what full funding would be, and the program is slated to expire on September 30 so we’re still pushing for full funding and permanent authorization for LWCF. Read a more detailed breakdown of what’s in the spending bill on the Outdoor Alliance Blog.

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Congress Considering Rolling Back the Roadless Rule: Act Now!

UPDATE: THIS CONSIDERATION IS OFF THE TABLE FOR NOW, THANKS IN PART TO YOUR COMMENTS! For details click here.

Congress is considering the first ever legislative attempt to allow road construction and logging in roadless national forest lands, undermining a key 2001 conservation rule. The Roadless Rule prohibits road construction, timber harvesting and other development in some parts of the National Forest System—so-called “inventoried roadless areas.” These roadless areas include many of our most accessible winter backcountry areas, cherished by skiers and snowboarders for the recreation opportunities they provide. Check out this map (made by our friends at the Outdoor Alliance) and click on “Roadless Areas” to see all the places currently protected by this rule.

Here’s how it’s happening: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R, AK) has added obscure “riders” to the 2018 Senate Interior Appropriations bill to exempt Alaska’s two national forests, the Tongass and Chugach, from the Roadless Rule.  Murkowski’s riders would remove protections from about 15 million acres, encompassing nearly one-quarter of all forest-based inventoried roadless areas in the U.S. If allowed to pass, this will set precedent for forest-by-forest or state-by-state exemptions to to this important conservation rule, jeopardizing the roadless areas where you ski and snowboard. Not only that, Murkowski’s amendments directly threaten some of the best, most accessible human-powered skiing in Alaska. Turnagain Pass is one of the roadless areas that would be opened to road building and other forms of development if Murkowski’s riders stand.

Roadless areas (red) across the U.S.

The Senate Interior Appropriations Committee will decide this week whether to let Murkowski’s riders stand. We need you to contact your Senator TODAY and tell them to insist that Senator Murkowski drop her riders and leave our roadless areas alone.

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February Policy Update: From D.C. to California

This month we were in D.C. with our Outdoor Alliance colleagues (including policy staff from all of the OA member groups) to assess our work thus far into the current administration, to talk strategy for the coming year, and to meet with Congressional offices on the Hill.

It was a productive whirlwind. It’s always fun to hang out with our OA colleagues and brainstorm how we can work together to protect public lands and human-powered recreation experiences. And by teaming up with the climbers, paddlers, and mountain bikers, we’re able to get our issues in front of way more offices. And when we speak as a united team on behalf of the entire human-powered outdoor recreation community we have a lot more political power.

On the Hill, we advocated for the bi-partisan Recreation Not Red Tape bill, which OA helped to draft, plus a fire funding fix, the permanent re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and to defend the original Nation Monument designations for Bears Ears and the Antiquities Act. These are all things that affect all forms of outdoor recreation on public lands, including snowsports.

Forest and Winter Recreation Planning

While we were in D.C., we also met with the Forest Service’s Washington Office staff who oversee the travel management program. Keeping things pretty high level, we updated them on how winter travel planning is playing out here in the West, and shared our thoughts on what we thought was working and what wasn’t.

We’re trying to find ways to make winter travel planning less intimidating, so that forests start to prioritize getting it done and doing it right. The D.C. staff seemed keen to talk about opportunities to front-load the process with collaborative efforts, and we are hopeful that they might provide some guidance to forests to encourage this approach. Until Congress appropriates more money to the Forest Service (and fixes the fire borrowing issue) they have to keep trying to figure out how to do more with less, and winter travel planning won’t happen the way it should unless we can convince each Forest that it’s a priority and worth the effort. Well-grounded, facilitated collaboratives can help make travel planning easier, which helps in convincing Forest Supervisors and District Rangers that it’s something they want to prioritize.

Another major focus this month has been Custer Gallatin forest planning. The Custer Gallatin National Forest is home to Montana’s highest and snowiest peaks, some of the best ice climbing in the country, and tons of great skiing. The comment period for the Proposed Action ends on March 5 and WWA’s Policy Director has been busy participating in two collaborative groups (love those collaboratives!) and writing comments on behalf of both Winter Wildlands Alliance and Outdoor Alliance Montana. In this forest plan revision, we are advocating for new areas to be recommended for Wilderness, as well as changes in over-snow vehicle suitability to reduce conflicts with skiers in the Bozeman area, and to build a foundation for winter travel planning on the eastern half of the forest (the west half already has a winter travel plan).

Also this month, in California, WWA’s Advocacy Director participated in an informal, 11th-hour stakeholder collaborative with snowmobilers, backcountry skiers and others on the Lassen National Forest’s winter travel plan. Stay tuned on that; we hope to be able to share high-level points of consensus and some notes on the process —what worked and what could be improved — in the coming weeks.

New Backcountry Alliance!

Getting after it in the Tetons. Photo by WWA ambassador Kim Havell

This month Winter Wildlands Alliance welcomed its newest grassroots group: the Teton Backcountry Alliance. We’re stoked to have an organized voice for skiers in the Tetons, covering the region from Teton Pass to Grand Teton National Park and beyond, where there’s no shortage of issues affecting skiers. We’ll be working with this group to help them get their feet under them in the coming months.

Trails Stewardship Grant Opportunity!

Finally: we recently learned that the Forest Service has scraped up a little funding to continue their National Forest System Trails Stewardship Funding Program in 2018. Last year they awarded $250,000 to trail projects across the country. This year, there’s $400,000 available (don’t ask us how they managed to increase this part of their budget). If your organization does stewardship work, this could be a great opportunity – last year the money went towards maintaining trails, installing signs, surveying trails, and improving trailheads and campgrounds. They’ll start soliciting applications on March 1 (with application deadline April 15), so if this is something you’re interested in shoot Hilary Eisen an email for more information.

 

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Comment Now on the Custer Gallatin Forest Plan Revision

The Custer Gallatin National Forest has released a Proposed Action for its forest plan revision. This is the Forest Service’s initial proposal for how it might face the challenges of ensuring that growing populations and increasing recreation use on the forest are balanced with protecting the forest’s unique and important ecological role.

Based on the comments they receive between now and March 5 on the Proposed Action, the Forest Service will develop a range of Alternatives. The final revised forest plan will evolve out of that range of Alternatives, so your comments now have a big impact. For more details on the plan and our perspective on it, click here. Otherwise, please submit a comment today using the form below. Editable comments are provided in the message window on page 2.

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A New Look at NEPA? Sounds Good. But Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water.

COMMENTS DUE FRIDAY FEBRUARY 2!

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE something pretty rare comes along and you can’t help but take notice. For instance, early this morning we witnessed a super blue blood moon eclipse. That happens even less than once in a blue moon! Along the same lines, of things that happen “once in a blue moon” (or less), the Forest Service is taking a new look at what they do to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and they’re accepting preliminary comments through the end of this week.

The NEPA process is the environmental review the Forest Service does whenever they make a major decision. It helps ensure that public lands and waters remain healthy, resilient, and attractive outdoor recreation destinations and it’s the primary avenue that we, the public, have to participate in decisions about the way Forest Service lands and waters are managed. The vast majority of comments submitted thus far in the process are from the extractive industry – it’s time for the outdoor recreation community to speak up.

Click here to submit a comment on regulations.gov

Because of the way the Forest Service is collecting comments we’re unable to provide a one-click comment template for you to use. You’ll have to write your own letter. But feel free to use the following talking points:

  • I strongly support the principles of NEPA and believe that environmental review and public comment are a vital components of the land management decision-making process, since it helps to ensure that public lands and waters remain healthy and resilient.
  • I urge the USFS to approach any changes to the NEPA regulations carefully so that the agency has the tools needed to ensure that the lands they manage remain attractive recreation destinations for a wide range of users.
  • I believe NEPA and environmental review are important to preserve opportunities for the recreating public to participate in decisions about the way the agency’s lands and waters are managed.
  • The Forest Service should continue to invest in more up-front public process, including collaboration, to help improve and expedite project planning and implementation.
  • One way the Forest Service could streamline its approach to NEPA is to better utilize programmatic, landscape-scale analysis and decision-making, with tiered project-level analysis and appropriate use of categorical exclusions.
  • The Forest Service should not consider expanding upon existing categorical exclusions to enable larger-scale salvage logging.

Comments are due Friday. Act now!