This guest post comes courtesy of our Red Lodge, MT based grassroots group, Beartooth Recreational Trails Association. 

The Beartooth Recreational Trails Association was the first Montana-based grassroots member of Winter Wildlands Alliance. They promote summer and winter trails in and around Red Lodge, MT, which includes operation of Red Lodge Nordic Center and grooming the West Fork (Forest Service) Road.

The West Fork, just 6 miles from town, offers something for everybody: walking, dog sledding, dog joring, snowshoeing, XC skiing (including track), skate skiing, and fat tire biking. Snowmobiling is also allowed, as there are privately owned cabins about 6 miles down the road. People also use snowmobiles on the road to access private cabins and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness trailhead at the end of the road to ski and ice climb.

BRTA has had a permit to groom the West Fork road for several years, which benefits all users and keeps snow packed and fairly smooth into the spring. Their volunteer grooms 3-4 times a month; and this season they will have available for the first time a 4 stroke snowmobile pulling a modern Ginzu groomer for grooming fresh or old snow!

The Custer National Forest (now one half of the Custer-Gallatin) has not undertaken winter travel planning. This lack of planning means that the Forest Service does not have a definition nor any rules about tracked vehicles or what types of uses are allowed on the West Fork. This is problematic for BRTA’s grooming efforts and can cause conflicts. When tracked vehicles drive around the gate they can interfere with quiet recreation and destroy the grooming efforts. BRTA also encounters problems with horses on the snow pulling sleighs on runners, which also destroys the grooming efforts.

For many years BRTA has worked with the Forest Service to address the lack of signage, which is needed to govern all the users and reduce conflicts. They are also dealing with increased warm spells which deteriorate the snow. Other issues include a lack of parking; and this year, lack of a contractor to plow the 4 mile access road. Now they are working with private land owners, the Forest Service, and winter recreationists to raise money and come up with a plan to keep this access road plowed. The Custer Gallatin National Forest does not plow any Forest Service roads, but will plow parking lots.

To learn more about BRTA visit www.beartoothtrails.org

Take Action Now to Keep Public Lands Protected and Funded!

Yesterday President Trump announced the largest-ever reduction in conservation protections for American public lands and now, with the end of 2017 in sight Congress is busy working to pass a budget and a tax bill, both of which threaten winter wildlands and public lands. Things are grim, but unfortunately becoming a snow cave dwelling hermit won’t solve anything and we’ve got to keep fighting.

The tax bill contains two provisions that are particularly worrisome for us as a non-profit that works to protect winter wildlands. First, the Senate bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. This provision was added to secure Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote.

The tax bill also directly threatens non-profits – including those like Winter Wildlands Alliance who work to protect public lands and winter wildlands – by disincentivizing charitable giving. Charitable donations fund the majority of the work that we, and other non-profits, do. 80% of nonprofit funding annually comes from individual donors, and more than 90% of those individual donors make less than $100,000/yr. But under both the House and Senate bill the charitable deduction would only be available to the wealthiest Americans, meaning that 95% of Americans will be taxed on their charitable contributions. Likewise, the tax bill limits the estate tax by doubling the current exemption.

Click here to contact your Senators and Representative and tell them not to sacrifice the Arctic Refuge and to preserve incentives for all Americans to continue to contribute to non-profit organizations.

Congress is also working to finalize a budget for 2018. This has huge implications for public lands and winter wildlands – not only in determining how much money the public lands agencies will have in order to do their jobs in the coming year, but also because the bill is littered with bad riders, including, for example, a rider to exempt national forests in Alaska from complying with the Roadless Rule. If adopted, this would undo existing protections for about 15 million acres encompassing nearly one-quarter of all Forest Service inventoried roadless areas in the U.S. Many prime backcountry ski zones, like Turnagain Pass on the Chugach, are threatened by these riders. These riders would also set a precedent that would open the doors to even broader attacks on national forest roadless areas. We’re really worried about these riders.

If you live in  Alaska, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia, or Vermont, you have a Senator who sits on the Interior Appropriations Committee. Your email to your Senator asking that he or she oppose Murkowski’s riders to Sections 508 and 509 of the appropriations bill is our best bet for defending the Roadless Rule.

Even if you don’t live in one of those key states it’s still worthwhile to send an email to your representatives in Congress to tell them the 2018 budget and its massive cuts to public lands agencies, scientific research, land conservation, and environmental protection is an affront to your values as a winter recreationist and conservationist.

If you want to see what else Congress is up to, please check out the Bill Tracker page on our website. We update this page frequently to keep you posted on current legislation.

Thanks,

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director

The Shoshone National Forest has published a revised Proposed Action outlining its vision for winter travel management on the forest. When finalized, this plan will have major repercussions for skiing and snowboarding on the Shoshone, especially on Togwotee Pass and Beartooth Pass.

We now have until December 10, 2017, to provide comments to influence the plan as it takes shape. Your comments matter (even if you commented last year, it’s important to weigh in again).

— CLICK HERE TO USE OUR HANDY LETTER TEMPLATE TO SUBMIT A COMMENT —

Context

The Shoshone National Forest bills itself as a wild backcountry forest, and indeed there are some amazing adventures to be had deep in the Wind River, Absaroka, and Beartooth mountains. What’s at stake in this travel plan, however, and where most skiers go, is the Shoshone’s relatively accessible world-class front-country terrain. Specifically Togwotee Pass and the Beartooth Pass.

The current Proposed Action —revised from the Proposed Action of May 2016—was developed based on suggestions the Forest Service received from the public as well as from groups like Winter Wildlands Alliance, Togwotee Backcountry Alliance, and the Wyoming Wilderness Association. This revised Proposed Action doesn’t change much from how snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles (OSVs) are currently managed on the forest, and for the most part we’re pretty supportive of what the Forest Service is proposing. You can review the latest plan, and look at maps of what the Forest Service is proposing here.

Discrete Motorized Season

For the first time ever, the Shoshone is considering a set season for winter motorized use. We like that they’re proposing specific dates before and after which snowmobile use would not be allowed, but the current proposal is confusing — there are different season dates for each ranger district and even different dates within ranger districts. We suggest they simplify things with a single season: December 1 through April 30, with a slight extension to allow snowmobile use on the Beartooth Pass until May 15.

Implementing these season dates would reduce conflicts between over-snow vehicles and wildlife and is a balanced way for skiers and snowmobilers to share the Beartooth Pass while recognizing that the two user groups have traditionally used this area during different and distinct seasons. These season dates also bring the Shoshone in line with how it’s neighbor, the Bridger-Teton, manages winter use on Togwotee Pass.

Protection for Cross-Country Skiing on Togwotee Pass

We are pleased to see that the Shoshone is proposing to formally close the cross-country ski trails on Togwotee Pass to motorized use (excepting for grooming purposes). The local trails group in Dubois — DART — spends a lot of resources grooming these trails for skiing and their efforts can be completely undermined by just one or two irresponsible OSV users. By closing, and signing, these areas cross-country skiers on Togwotee Pass will finally have non-motorized trails to enjoy.

Compliance With OSV Rule and Wilderness Act

In general, we think the Shoshone needs to do more to comply with the OSV Rule. The OSV Rule requires that the Forest Service designate discrete areas for OSV use, located to minimize impacts on wildlife and the environment and in areas that won’t cause conflict with other uses. Right now we’re not so sure the areas they’re proposing to designate really will minimize impacts and we expect them to explain how they’ve complied with this requirement when they write an Environmental Impact Statement.

We are especially concerned that the Shoshone has proposed to designate the entire High Lakes Wilderness Study Area (WSA) open for OSV use. This violates the Wyoming Wilderness Act, which states that snowmobile use in the WSA is only permissible if it’s at the same “manner and extent” as occurred in 1984. Unfortunately nobody thought to collect any baseline data showing how many people were snowmobiling in the WSA in the early ’80’s or where they were going, so we have to give it our best guess. While it’s pretty hard to guess how many snowmobiles were up there in the 80’s, we are confident that the machines people were riding then weren’t as powerful as what they’re riding today and therefore people weren’t traveling very far into the WSA. Therefore, we think the Forest Service should limit where snowmobiles can go within the WSA, restricting them to areas near the designated trail network (where it seems most likely people were riding in the past). After all, until Congress changes the status of the WSA the Forest Service is legally bound to comply with the existing law.

Press

Wyofile.org. 12/8/2017: Skis and Snowmobiles: National forest examines winter travel. 

The National Park Service recently announced that it is considering increasing entrance fees to $70 at 17 of its most popular parks – Acadia, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion. This increase would double, and in some cases triple, current entrance fees. We are very concerned about how the proposed fee increase would impact the public’s ability to access and enjoy the National Parks and we oppose the fee increase in its current form. If you enjoy visiting National Parks we encourage you to comment on the proposed fee hike.

Almost all of the Parks included in the proposed fee hike are world-class destinations for skiers, many of which have a ski season that extends into the peak season when the proposed fee increase would be in place. However, our concern about this fee increase goes far beyond backcountry skiing. We strongly believe that entrance fees should never be set at levels where people are priced out of enjoying their public lands.

The Park Service is proposing this fee increase, which is projected to generate $68 million, in order to address an $11 billion maintenance backlog. We accept that fees increases are appropriate or necessary in some limited circumstances but we cannot and should not address a multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog on the backs of Park visitors. This fee increase strikes us as unreasonably high, particularly when proposed in conjunction with overall Department of Interior budget cuts to the tune of $1.5 billion, including a $380 million cut to the Park Service budget. This backlog is the result of decades of systematic underfunding of the land management agencies, including the Park Service, by Congress. A much more appropriate course of action would be for the Administration to work with Congress to appropriate adequate funds for the Park Service each year and for Congress to pass the National Park Service Legacy Act, which would establish a dedicated park maintenance fund to invest a more substantial amount toward the Park Service repair backlog.

The Park Service is accepting comments on the proposed fee increase until December 22.

Click here to submit a comment

On October 3, 2017, the Lassen National Forest released a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) for its new winter travel plan. The final public comment period on the plan closes November 20. The Lassen, which straddles California’s northern Sierra and southern Cascades and surrounds Lassen Volcanic National Park, is the first forest in the country to write a comprehensive winter travel plan under the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule, so what happens here is very likely to impact winter travel planning across the country.

Forest planners want to get it right on the Lassen, and have assured us that they are eager to incorporate substantive comments into the final plan, so we hope to get as many skiers and human-powered winter enthusiasts as possible to send in comments. Read on for some quick background and our notes and concerns on this latest revised draft, or click here to send the forest service your comments using our handy template.

Quick Background

As the guinea pig (or, perhaps, avalanche poodle), the Lassen NF has been working since 2015 — with some stops, starts, and re-dos — to set a course for how to go about writing a winter travel plan and complying with the OSV Rule. As we go through the process with them, we’re also learning – how to clearly articulate our winter travel planning vision to the Forest Service, how and when to reach out to other stakeholders, and how to better engage you – our members and supporters.

The forest published an initial draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in early 2016. The 2016 DEIS analyzed four Alternatives, or potential plans, including one based on the “Skiers Alternative” submitted by WWA and Snowlands Network. At that time, we told the Forest Service that we supported the skiers alternative, with modifications to account for impacts to wildlife, wilderness lands, and natural resources (exhibit A of us learning as we go – when we developed the skiers alternative we left too much to interpretation and the Forest Service’s interpretation wasn’t quite in line with our vision).

After considering all of the public’s comments on the DEIS the Forest Service wrote a “Selected Alternative”, or draft plan, which they put out for public review in August 2016.  This 2016 draft plan was a slight improvement over the status quo but did not meet the requirements of the OSV Rule on many fronts. For example, the plan did not propose management of snowmobiles under the new legally mandated framework of “closed unless designated open.” Instead, it proposed the opposite, identifying a few areas to close to over-snow vehicles and leaving the rest of the forest open to OSVs by default.

In September 2016 Winter Wildlands Alliance, Snowlands Network, and 6 other organizations filed objections to the Lassen’s draft winter travel plan. In response, the Forest Service went back to the drawing board to develop a new alternative and revise their draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Which brings us back to this newly-released Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) and the current comment period.

We Support the New Alternative 5

The new draft plan contains a much more thorough environmental analysis than the 2016 version, and also includes an encouraging new alternative — Alternative 5 — developed in response to objections.

The 4 alternatives that had been in the 2016 DEIS are still included, with a few modifications to bring them (mostly) in compliance with existing laws and policy. All of the alternatives now identify specific areas where OSVs are allowed and prohibit OSV use outside of these areas. This corrected approach is a big improvement. However, the Forest Service’s “Modified Proposed Action” (Alternative 2) is otherwise almost exactly the same as what was proposed in 2015 — it does not protect important quiet recreation areas or wildlife habitat and would designate as open for OSV use low elevation areas that rarely receive snow. Likewise, Alternatives 3 and 4 are also essentially the same as in 2015.

Alternative 5: Areas and Trails to be Designated under Subpart C and Groomed for OSV Use (Click for larger version)

Alternative 5, however, addresses all of the concerns that we had with the previous draft plan, and lays out a winter travel plan that balances motorized winter recreation with quiet recreation and protection of wildlife and the environment. Alternative 5 designates OSV use areas in places where people actually go snowmobiling (preserving all of the opportunities the snowmobile community values) and doesn’t designate places that don’t make any sense (like low elevation areas that don’t get snow).

Alternative 5 also does a much better job of protecting wildlife habitat – not designating any critical deer winter range as open for OSVs – and doesn’t designate OSV use within any of the quiet recreation areas that we identified. In addition, Alternative 5 protects the quiet, non-motorized character of the Pacific Crest Trail by prohibiting OSV use within at least 500 feet on either side of the trail, except at a few designated crossing points. Finally, alternative 5 would designate a 12-inch minimum snow depth standard across the forest – meaning that OSV use would not be allowed on any trails or in any areas until those trails/areas have a minimum of 12 inches of snow. This snow depth standard protects underlying resources including soils, vegetation, and subnivian habitat, and also complies with State of California OSV grooming standards.

Your Comments Really Matter!

The Forest Service has assured us that they do not have a preferred alternative at this time. All options, including everything in Alternative 5, are on the table. For this reason, it’s incredibly important that people participate in this public comment period. Whether you’re a local who can speak to particular areas on the forest, or somebody who’s never set foot in northeastern California but cares deeply about winter travel management on National Forest lands, this comment period matters. Alternative 5 sets a really good course for the Forest Service as it embarks on winter travel planning, and provides a good example for other forests to follow. We appreciate the effort that the agency has put into developing this alternative and we’d love to see the final plan closely resemble it.

We urge you to comment in support of Alternative 5 before the comment period closes on November 20, and we’ve developed a nifty online commenting portal to help you do so.

Click here to comment now.