Photo by Ming Poon

TODAY — May 29, 2018 — IS THE LAST DAY TO COMMENT on the Tahoe National Forest’s Draft Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Plan. Whether you’re a backcountry skier, splitboarder, Nordic skier, snowshoer, snowmobiler, timber sledder, snow scientist, dog musher, fat biker, e-biker, snowman builder, snowball fighter, ice climber, ice fisher, ice skater, winter through-hiker, lifelong local, weekend visitor, business owner, environmentalist, capitalist, philosopher, curmudgeon, or — like many of us — some combination of all these things, it’s important that the forest service hears from you about how winter recreation can be improved and sustained on our public lands, not just for some users but for ALL.

1) Good planning makes for a better future.

The forest service has never before been compelled to go through a comprehensive process to analyze and designate, with public input, where snowmobiles and other motorized over-snow vehicles (OSVs) are and are not allowed to travel — until now. The Tahoe is the second national forest in the nation (after the Lassen, also in California) to take a good hard look at how winter recreation might best be managed for the next 20-30 years.

Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.

— Gifford Pinchot, founding Chief of the United States Forest Service

We hear from some folks that things are just fine the way they are. Others feel squeezed out of some of their favorite places, or fear being squeezed out in the future.

Either way, given the complex pressures of population growth, climate change and new technologies, with ever more users getting out on public lands in different ways and in ever less predictable winters, we believe that good, balanced, forward-thinking winter management planning is essential. We believe the forest can provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources well into the future.

2) Separation minimizes conflict.

For a host of reasons, so-called “shared use” greatly favors the folks on machines over those traveling on foot. We believe that creating separate, discrete zones for motorized and non-motorized activities with reasonable, appropriate access for each is smart management, minimizes the potential for conflict, and makes the winter experience better for all users. Preserving and protecting a variety of recreational experiences — motorized and non-motorized — is good for stakeholders and also good for the local economy.

3) The status quo is out of balance.

One argument we hear from the motorized community is that “85% of the forest is already closed” to motorized winter travel and that skiers “already have ALL the wilderness.” In fact, nearly 3/4 of the forest is currently open to over-snow vehicle travel and only 2% is designated Wilderness:

  • Tahoe NF total area: 871,495 acres (100%)
  • Area currently open to OSV travel: 636,002 acres (73%)
  • Granite Chief Wilderness (the only designated Wilderness on the Tahoe NF): 19,048 acres (2%)

We don’t think of this as a zero-sum game. Nearly one quarter (199,565 acres, or 23%) of the forest lies below 4500 feet, where snowfall is generally inadequate for skiing or snowmobiling. Elsewhere, many of the same prime winter recreation areas are coveted by both motorized and non-motorized users. We believe compromises can and should be struck to allow both groups fair and adequate access. This process is our chance to restore balance to the landscape and to improve the winter recreation experience for everybody.

4) Public input is essential for public lands.

Whether you live in Truckee or San Francisco, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque, helping this national forest draft a quality winter travel plan is YOUR opportunity to help protect high-value winter experiences on public lands you care about across the country.

CLICK HERE FOR OUR QUICK AND EASY COMMENT TOOL.

Jeremy Jones Kicking Steps on the Tahoe National Forest
Photo by Ming Poon

 

FOR AS LONG AS I’VE BEEN BACKCOUNTRY SKIING, Memorial Day weekend has been an important part of my ski season. It’s when the Beartooth Pass just outside of Red Lodge, MT opens for the summer, providing easy access to high elevation spring snow from an 11,000 ft. starting point. From steep couloirs to crust cruising across alpine plateaus, the Pass provides everything my little skier heart desires. And, skiing there reminds me why the work we do with Winter Wildlands Alliance is so important.

Becker Lake in the Beartooth Mountains is within the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.
BRETT FRENCH/Billings Gazette Staff

Much of the terrain that skiers access off of the Pass is within the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming and has been protected to preserve wilderness character for the past 33 years. WSA status has protected the area from road building and other forms of development, prohibited summer motorized use, and limited how much snowmobiling occurs. Right now, however, the future of this WSA is up for debate and non-motorized recreation and conservation interests are getting the short end of the stick. At the same time, the two national forests accessed from the Pass, the Shoshone and Custer Gallatin, are working on plans that will directly impact future backcountry skiing experiences across each forest. Winter Wildlands Alliance is involved in all of these conversations and planning efforts, advocating to protect wild and quiet snowscapes.

We’re also working hard in California, which continues to be the center of attention when it comes to winter travel planning. Last month, just as we neared the finish line on the Lassen winter travel plan, the Tahoe published a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for its winter travel plan. Overall we’re pretty happy with what the Tahoe is proposing. We’re advocating for a few targeted changes to the preferred alternative to address lingering concerns around popular backcountry and Nordic ski zones.

Our friends at Tahoe Backcountry Alliance hosted an open discussion session and comment-writing happy hour in Truckee.

Unfortunately, misinformation has been spreading like wildfire through the Tahoe snowmobile community and many are under the impression that the Forest Service (and Winter Wildlands Alliance) is out to shut down snowmobiling on the forest. They’ve rallied thousands of comments and gotten the local ultra-conservative Congressmen fired up. Skiers have been bullied and intimidated and many are shying away from commenting. Click here for coverage of the controversy and process by the Reno Gazette Journal.

We need backcountry skiers, splitboarders, Nordic skiers and snowshoers to speak up and provide substantive and thoughtful comments!

We’ve got tons of information on our website. Please, if you haven’t already, take a moment now to comment on the Tahoe travel plan and to share the comment page with all your friends and ski partners.

Finally, no policy update is complete without a nod to D.C. It seems that no major piece of legislation is complete these days without an attack on National Forest roadless areas. First we had the budget bill, where Senator Murkowski (R, AK) tried (and failed) to insert amendments that would have exempted Alaska’s national forests from the Roadless Rule. Then we had the House Farm Bill.

“While some snowmobile riders are worried about losing forest access, others who have studied the proposal say potential losses are less drastic than some perceive. ‘We are not trying to get rid of snowmobiling altogether,” said Jim Gibson, vice president and secretary of Snowlands. “We just think the current 85% motorized/15% nonmotorized split needs more balance.'” — Benjamin Spillman, Reno Gazette Journal

Because the Forest Service is within the Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bill includes provisions that affect national forest lands. The bill includes convoluted language about roadless area management that could be interpreted to eliminate current regulatory protection of Inventoried Roadless Areas. And, more blatantly, the bill exempts Alaska’s national forests from the Roadless Rule to increase logging of old growth forests. Although the Farm Bill failed to pass on May 18, House Republican leadership is planning to bring the bill up for a second vote on or before June 22nd. The Senate is also working on their version of a Farm Bill, which we could see later this month. The Farm Bill is an important and complex piece of legislation that many people’s livelihoods depend upon. There’s no need to bog it down with unpopular, unnecessary, and controversial add-ons like these attacks on the Roadless Rule. Stay tuned. We’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

APRIL 2018 — With this month’s publication of a final environmental impact statement (FEIS), the Lassen National Forest, the first forest in the country to write a complete winter travel plan under the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule, is almost done with winter travel planning. We have one more opportunity to tweak the plan, through the objection process, and then the plan will be finalized.

ACTION ALERT: The Tahoe National Forest’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was published on April 13, 2018, initiating a 45-day public comment period to end on May 25, 2018.

CLICK HERE FOR MAPS, LINKS AND ANALYSIS.

Overall, we feel that the Lassen did a decent job. It’s not the exact plan we would have written had we been in charge, but with a couple of exceptions (see below) the majority of important non-motorized recreation areas, winter wildlands, and important wildlife winter habitat areas are protected.

The draft plan designates 6 areas for OSV use, totaling 762,920 acres (or 66 percent) of the forest. It also designates 380 miles of National Forest System snow trails within the Lassen National Forest. This does not include the many more hundreds of miles of ungroomed OSV trails that are within designated open areas. OSV use is prohibited outside of the designated areas.

Important Non-Motorized Areas Protected

Lassen NF Selected Alternative: Areas and Trails to be Designated for Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Use

In the draft plan, approximately 387,100 acres of the forest are not open to OSV use, which nearly doubles the amount of non-motorized protection under current management. Most of the areas Winter Wildlands Alliance and Snowlands Network specifically identified as important for non-motorized recreation are not designated for OSV use in this draft plan, including Colby Mountain, Eagle Lake, and areas around the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail and Hog Flat reservoir.

McGowan National Recreation Trail, Butte Lake, and Lake Almanor Trail Still Need Protection

We are disappointed that the draft plan designates both the Butte Lake and Lake Almanor areas for OSV use and doesn’t fully recognize the McGowan National Recreation Trail. These are places where we have advocated for quiet recreation. The Butte Lake area also contains important wildlife habitat. We still feel that the Forest Service can protect the quiet recreation and wildlife habitat values in these two places while addressing the OSV community’s access concerns, and we will be filing an objection to advocate for these protections.

The McGowan National Recreation Trail was designated as a non-motorized cross-country ski trail in 1981. However, the draft plan designates the western portion of the trail, and the area around it, for OSV use. We believe this is a misunderstanding, and are working to ensure that the McGowan National Recreation Trail remains a non-motorized cross-country ski trail.

In the Butte Lake area, the motorized community has expressed a desire to ride on a couple of specific trails but they do not travel far off trail. We have previously suggested that the Forest Service not allow cross-country OSV use in Butte Lake but rather designate trails within the suggested non-motorized area to allow OSV travel and connectivity between open areas.

Likewise, we have advocated for a non-motorized area on the southwest shore of Lake Almanor because skiers use the Lake Almanor Recreation Trail in winter. It has come to our attention that the non-motorized area we have advocated for might block access between a designated OSV area and a commonly used parking area. Rather than allow OSV use along the entire southwest shore of the lake, including on the ski trail (as stated in the draft plan), we feel a more balanced solution would be to allow OSV use where necessary and reasonable to allow users to get from the parking area to the Jonesville OSV area, while keeping the area around Lake Almanor Recreation Trail non-motorized.

Draft Plan Fails the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is a National Scenic Trail and Congress has mandated that the trail be non-motorized. The Lassen’s draft winter travel plan, however, would manage the Pacific Crest Trail as non-motorized in name only during the winter. Under the draft plan, OSV use would be allowed right up to the very edge of the trail for much of its length through the Lassen National Forest, although OSVs would technically only be allowed to cross the trail at 17 designated crossing points.

We don’t see how the Forest Service will enforce these designated crossing points and we don’t believe this management complies with the letter or spirit of the Pacific Crest Trail Comprehensive Plan. Several of the Alternatives that the Forest Service analyzed included a 500-foot non-motorized buffer around the Pacific Crest Trail, with designated trails and crossing points to ensure OSV connectivity across the trail. The Forest Service’s own analysis supports the need for a non-motorized buffer in order to comply with the PCT Comprehensive Plan and we agree.

Wildlife Habitat Better Protected

The draft plan does far more to protect wildlife habitat on the Lassen than either the current management or the previous (2017) draft plan. It protects winter deer habitat around Cinder Butte and Child’s Meadow and in low elevation areas like Fall River and Shasta by not designating these areas for OSV use. Likewise, the draft plan protects yellow-legged frog habitat in the Butt Mountain and Cub Creek areas, and in Child’s Meadow. However, the plan does little to address the Lassen’s rarest forest carnivore – the Sierra Nevada red fox.

This picture of a Sierra Nevada red fox in December 2014 was the first confirmed detection in Yosemite in nearly a century. Two were captured near the Lassen NF this past winter. NPS photo.

There are estimated to be only 63 Sierra Nevada red fox in the Cascade population, (which is one of only two populations world-wide and includes animals ranging from the Lassen to Mt. Hood). In the FEIS the Forest Service states that little is known about how OSVs impact fox and therefore assumes the impact to be benign. As a result, the Forest Service decided that this species is not a significant concern in terms of OSV management. It’s true that little is known about how OSV use impacts Sierra Nevada red fox but researchers captured and collared two Sierra Nevada red fox on the Lassen this past winter with the intent of learning more about the species. We believe that the Forest Service should error on the side of caution and be conservative in protecting red fox habitat until we learn more about how OSV use does, or does not, impact the species.

Minimum Snow Depth Will Help Protect Soils and Vegetation

In the draft plan, cross-country OSV use is not allowed unless there is at least 12 inches of snow on the ground, as measured and reported by the Forest Service. This 12-inch minimum snow depth will help to protect vegetation and guard against soil compaction. Unlike in previous versions of this plan, the current draft plan includes specific plans for how the Forest Service will measure snow depth and notify the public about when minimum snow depths are met and OSV areas are open.

A meaningful minimum snow depth is an important tool for minimizing OSV impacts on natural resources and we’re pleased to see this incorporated into the draft plan. However, we are concerned that the draft plan allows OSV use on trails when there is just 6 inches of snow. As the Forest Service’s analysis describes, 6 inches is insufficient to protect vegetation and soils and we aren’t confident that OSV users will stick to the designated routes when there is less than 12 inches of snow on the ground. We are concerned that the 6-inch exception for trails will undermine the broader 12-inch minimum snow depth.

A Step Forward for Balance and Quiet Recreation

We’ve been working on winter travel planning on the Lassen National Forest since 2015. Back then, the Forest Service didn’t really understand how to do winter travel planning in accordance with the new Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. At the same time, the ski community wasn’t super engaged in the process. At the first public meeting the Forest Service hosted, back in 2015, there were only two skiers in the room. A WWA staffer and a Snowlands board member. At the last public meeting the Forest Service hosted the number of skiers and snowmobilers present was roughly equal. Hundreds of skiers submitted public comments on the draft EIS in November 2017.

The Forest Service has shifted course on how they approach winter travel planning, which has resulted in a much better plan than the one we objected to last year. These are important gains that we will build off of as we move forward with winter travel planning elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada and across the country.

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.

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.