Winter Wildlands Alliance in DC

By Mark Menlove, Executive Director

As I boarded a 5:20 a.m. flight in Boise bound for Washington, DC, it struck me, again, the direct connection and interdependence between the backcountry world, where I go to rejuvenate, and the policy world of DC, where I go to advocate. Just the day prior I’d woken up in the middle of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness where I’d been exploring on skis with Winter Wildlands Ambassadors Kt Miller and Forrest McCarthy and here I was — less than 24 hours later, ski gear traded for a business suit — headed to meet with members of Congress, the body responsible for designating “The Frank” as Wilderness and ensuring that remarkable landscape remains as it is – pristine, physically and mentally demanding and soul-replenishing – for future generations.

The DC visit was at the invitation of our partners at The Conservation Alliance for advocacy training with their board of directors and member company ambassadors followed by a day of Capitol Hill visits with key members of Congress. Hosted at the DC offices of the Pew Environmental Group, the training day included sessions on conservation policy, working effectively in the current political landscape and specific threats/solutions to our public lands born of the Public Lands Heist movement. Indicative of the interest and engagement from the outdoor industry in protecting our public lands, this year was the largest Conservation Alliance gathering ever.

We heard from partners in the conservation world, hunting and angling groups, the Outdoor Industry Association and our own DC-based policy experts from Outdoor Alliance. More than a decade ago, Winter Wildlands Alliance got together with our counterparts from the climbing, paddling, hiking and mountain biking worlds to form Outdoor Alliance. Our investment is paying huge dividends with the collective voice of the human-powered recreation community, led by the savvy Outdoor Alliance staff, emerging as the go-to thought leader in keeping our public lands public and engaging our community to speak up in defense of our shared inheritance of public lands.

In part because of WWA’s focus on winter travel planning efforts across the Sierra, I had the privilege of joining a team of representatives from California-based companies Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Camelbak and Toad & Co. in meeting with Congressional offices from California.

We met with offices of newly elected California Senator Kamala Harris, Representatives Paul Cook, Salud Carbajal, Jared Huffman, and Nevada Senator Dean Heller. In each meeting we delivered a message of keeping our public lands public by opposing any efforts to sell off or transfer public lands to states; to protect the integrity of the Antiquities Act; to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund; and to support California-specific bills such as the California Central Coast Heritage Protection Act and the Northwest California Mountains and Rivers legislation.

I can tell you that the combination of world-renowned outdoor businesses with a strong stakeholder group like Winter Wildlands Alliance representing constituents from each of these Congressional Districts who vote and who care about protecting public lands creates a powerful messenger. The message was heard loud and clear.

It was also clear that we – all of us who love public lands – have our work cut out for us in protecting these magical places that belong to all of us from continuing threats. Meanwhile, I take huge comfort and find deep inspiration in the knowledge that we have found our collective voice and that that voice is powerful.

Before DC, exploring winter in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Stop the Heist: Pushing back on behalf of public lands and the environment

Caroline Gleich and Rachel Spitzer, artwork by Jeremy Collins. Photo credit: Caroline Gleich

WE GOT A TON OF POSITIVE FEEDBACK after sending out our legislative update last week so we’re back with another update today. We’re here to help the backcountry community stand up to protect our public lands and environment, so without further ado, let’s drop in!

Public Lands Heist

Across the country Americans are speaking out against the public lands heist. In Utah people packed into a town hall meeting hosted by Representative Chaffetz, challenging him on his support for overturning Bears Ears National Monument and other efforts to undermine our public lands. WWA Ambassador Caroline Gleich was in the crowd and shared her trip report on the Outdoor Alliance blog. And, we just found out last night that the Outdoor Retailer trade show is leaving Utah in response to Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s resolution urging the Trump administration to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument and Utah’s overall assault on public lands.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, skiers, hikers, hunters, and many others are gearing up for a public lands rally on March 4 to tell their elected officials to #KeepItPublic! What’s happening in your state?
Here are the bills we’re currently tracking related to the public lands heist:

    • S.J.Res.15: Last week, the House voted to pass H.J. Res. 44 and throw out BLM Planning 2.0, which provides for public input in the planning process. The bill is now in the Senate, filed as S.J.Res. 15. If passed BLM land management planning would revert to the days of limited public participation and recreation voices struggling to be heard. For more information, check out this Outdoor Alliance blog post.
      Please call your Senators today and tell them to vote “no” on S.J. Res. 15. If you don’t know your Senate office numbers directly, call (202)-224-3121 to be connected to your Senate offices (just tell them what state you’re calling from).

 

    • HR 622 proposes to eliminate the Forest Service and BLM’s law enforcement ability. This bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry and the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands and these committees will determine whether or not to advance the bill.

 

  • H.J.Res.46, a resolution to roll back the National Park Service’s authority to regulate private oil and gas drilling within National Parks, has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Please tell your reps that you don’t support HR 622 or H.J.Res.46 and they shouldn’t either. We need Federal and local law enforcement to work together to protect our public lands and natural resources. As for deregulating oil and gas drilling in National Parks: really? NO. These bills jeopardize our public lands and should be shot down immediately. 
It’s not all bad news though. This week Congressmen Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) and Dave Reichert (WA-08) introduced a resolution affirming that our Federal public lands are national treasures that belong to all Americans.  When you contact your representative ask them to support H.Con.Res.27 rather than voting to undermine our public lands system.

The Environment

Meanwhile, as if undermining our public lands system weren’t enough, some members of Congress have their sights set on gutting our bedrock environmental laws and the agencies that enforce them. The Environmental Protection Agency—now headed by Scott Pruitt, one of the agency’s staunchest opponents—is at the center of this fight and we’re watching a number of bills on this front:

    • H.R.637 – Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017. This bill would repeal federal climate change regulations and prohibit agencies from regulating greenhouse gases in any way. Regulating greenhouse gases is the key to slowing or reversing climate change and that’s a pretty big deal. As skiers, we’d like the next generation to be able to experience the joys of winter. We don’t need Congress undermining efforts to address climate change.

 

    • H.R.861 – To Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.  The title spells it out pretty clearly – this bill would terminate the EPA on December 31, 2018.  The EPA is the agency that’s tasked with protecting human health and the environment. It’s kind of a big deal and anybody who enjoys breathing clean air, drinking clean water, or living and recreating in a healthy environment should be a fan of the EPA.  Seriously, they do a LOT of important things!

 

  • H.R.958 – To eliminate certain programs of the Environmental Protection Agency, and for other purposes.  The text of this bill isn’t posted online yet, but the title has us pretty concerned.

Action: Tell your reps to vote NO on these bills. The EPA and our environmental laws were enacted in response to burning rivers and silent springs and we don’t need to go back to those days. 

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo), opened hearings Wednesday to “modernize the Endangered Species Act,” which sounds a lot like yet another attempt to gut important regulation. We and our partners will be keeping a close eye on that one as well!

The most effective way to speak out in defense of public lands is to call your representatives in Congress and urge them to vote against bills that threaten our public lands or undermine our bedrock environmental laws. You can call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to get connected to your political reps. If you prefer email, however, we’ve created a web portal that allows you to easily email your senators and representatives. Whether you call or email, it’s important to let them know what you value as a constituent and what your thoughts are on the bills they are considering.

Thanks,

Hilary Eisen
Recreation Planning and Policy Manager

Town Hall 101

Winter Wildlands Alliance Ambassador Caroline Gleich at a public meeting on Bears Ears National Monument during the summer of 2016 (@carolinegleich): “Showed up at 9 am, waited in 95 degree heat for two hours to get a spot in this room. I’m not going to lie and say that attending these meetings is the most glamorous part of activism. It’s not. It’s uncomfortable. It’s slow- it can take all day- The crowds can be intimidating and at times it feels like a battleground. Preparing a thoughtful statement requires research and preparation and practice. No matter how many times I practice, my voice quivers when I start to speak. My hands shake. It’s a huge adrenaline rush. But I’m stoked to be here and make my voice heard. #protectbearsears “

 

Town Hall 101

 

For more great tips and further reading check out Caroline’s Where Do We Go From Here: How To Become a Citizen Activist.

Black Diamond co-founder Peter Metcalf speaks on behalf of leading outdoor companies urgingPresident Barack Obama to permanently protect the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah. Deseret News.

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Silverton Heli-Ski Expansion

Silverton Heli-Ski Expansion

The BLM is considering permitting expanded heli-ski terrain in the Silverton, CO backcountry.  The problem?  The areas in question include easily-accessed frontcountry terrain (including groomed trails!) and popular backcountry ski areas.  Local skiers are worried about being displaced from their favorite spots and are asking the BLM to think about ways to better balance heli-skiing with other backcountry uses.  The BLM has released a preliminary environmental assessment and is accepting public comments on the proposal until December 12.

While we aren’t opposed to heli-skiing, and we’d like to see Silverton Mountain and Silverton Guides continue to thrive, we have serious concerns about this proposal. If the BLM allows Silverton Guides to expand their heli operation into the areas they’ve requested they will be heli-skiing in places that are already heavily used by backcountry skiers, Nordic skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.  This is certain to cause conflict and displace existing uses – after all, would you want a helicopter landing on top of you in avalanche terrain? We would like Silverton Guides to consider different, more remote, areas to expand into.

 

Comments are due December 10.  Your comments should outline what your concerns are but also offer recommendations on how to improve or alter this proposal.  This could include simply sticking with the status quo (the “no action” alternative).  Don’t forget to include your: name, address, and familiarity with areas in question.  The subject of your email to the BLM should read “Silverton Guides EA”

Talking points you may want to include in your comments:
  • Areas proposed for heli-ski expansion overlap with popular backcountry skiing areas posing safety risks and user conflicts.  Areas close to town and easily accessible by human-powered recreationists should be avoided.  There is plenty of other terrain easily accessible by helicopter that is too remote to access by foot and would therefore not create conflict between users.  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing in areas close to town that are used by human-powered skiers.
  • Areas proposed for heli-ski expansion pose avalanche hazard directly over open county roads (CR110 and CR 2).  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing above open or groomed roads.
  • Noise impacts from helicopter use and avalanche bombing in downtown Silverton.  Recommend that BLM not permit heli-skiing in areas close to town.
  • Minimal analysis of impact to Lynx and wintering Elk.  Recommend input from Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
  • Proposal does not add users days to Silverton Guides permits therefore economic benefits from additional tourism are overstated.  Rather, negative impacts to backcountry skiing and snowmobiling may reduce tourism for these types of recreation.  Ask that the BLM more fully analyze economic impacts.
  • Recommend winter study to assess user impacts and avalanche hazards
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be required to post daily flight plan so backcountry skiers can avoid helicopter use
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be restricted from flying in popular backcountry areas on weekends
  • Recommend that Silverton Guides be required to attach Recco reflectors to all bombs before dropping them so that unexploded ordinance can be quickly recovered
  • Recommend a requirement that Silverton Guides staff be AMGA or otherwise certified
Don’t forget, the subject of your email should read “Silverton Guides EA”

Winter Travel Planning: Working to Get it Right

September 2016: Lassen National Forest releases draft winter travel plan. As a test case for future winter travel management on forests across the country, it still needs work.

The 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule, which requires that every forest that receives enough snow for winter recreation develop a travel management plan for over-snow vehicles, was a huge policy win for Winter Wildlands Alliance. Now that the Rule is in place, we have shifted our attention to making sure that it gets implemented in a timely and appropriate manner.

On the “timely” end, it’s important to note that not every forest is tackling winter travel planning right off the bat. The process takes time and resources, and we are working with partners across the country — locally and nationally — to move winter travel planning to the top of the priority list for those forests where current over-snow vehicle management is causing conflicts with skiers or impacting forest resources. Right now there are nine National Forests undertaking some level of winter travel management and we’re working to ensure that these early adopters get it right and set good examples for other forests to follow.

The first forest to write a winter travel plan entirely under the new Rule is nearing the finish line. The Lassen National Forest, in California’s northern Sierra, recently published a draft Record of Decision and final Environmental Impact Statement for its winter travel plan. Winter Wildlands Alliance and our partners at Snowlands Network have worked with the Forest Service, local skiers, and other winter recreation stakeholders to find common agreement on how over-snow vehicles should be managed on the Lassen in the future.

After talking with local skiers about where they recreate on the Lassen, and consulting with wildlife biologists and wilderness advocates to learn more about which areas of the forest needed to be protected for conservation reasons, we developed a potential plan (an “Alternative” in Forest Service parlance) for the Forest Service to consider as they weighed their options for what the new winter travel plan would look like. The motorized community also developed an Alternative. In the end, what the Forest Service has chosen as their draft plan is an amalgamation of the two alternatives that we and the snowmobile community developed.

The Selected Alternative, or draft plan, isn’t perfect but it’s pretty good. The Forest Service incorporated most of our recommendations about important non-motorized recreation areas, and the draft plan prohibits winter motorized use in these areas. The plan also prohibits over-snow vehicles (OSVs) in important conservation areas like recommended wilderness and Research Natural Areas. All the same, there is room for improvement. The draft plan would allow OSVs on one of the few official cross-country ski trails on the Lassen National Forest – the Dry Lake trail, which is part of the McGowan cross-country ski trail system – and does not go far enough in protecting quiet non-motorized recreation experiences on and around the McGowan ski trails.

“Open unless designated closed” and “closed unless designated open” may sound like two sides of the same coin, but the difference is more than semantic.

LassenMapWe are particularly interested in how the Lassen approaches the winter travel planning process because it is the test-case for how winter travel planning will occur on other forests across the country. Which is why we need to make sure the OSV Rule is implemented appropriately.

A major piece of the 2015 Rule, which makes over-snow vehicle management different under the new regulations versus how they’re currently managed, is that the Rule specifies that National Forest lands are, by default, closed to OSVs unless they are specifically designated as open. Currently, on most forests, OSVs are allowed anywhere they can physically travel with the exception of areas that are specifically closed. Under the new rule, however, when forests write winter travel plans they are supposed to identify specific areas where OSV use is appropriate and designate those areas as open, with the remainder of the forest being closed by default.

Although “open unless designated closed” and “closed unless designated open” may sound like two sides of the same coin, the difference is more than semantic. A “closed unless designated open” policy requires that the Forest Service take a hard look at how winter motorized use impacts non-motorized recreation, wildlife, and natural resources and then determine where OSV use is truly appropriate. In contrast, the old “open unless designated closed” policy assumes that OSV use is appropriate everywhere unless it can be proven otherwise. Under this policy the vast majority of Forest Service lands are open to winter motorized recreation by default, including critical wildlife winter range, recommended wilderness areas, and sensitive environmental areas. For skiers, this has meant that outside of wilderness, in most of the places where we ski we’ve had to compete with snowmobiles for access to untracked powder, or had to contend with breathing in exhaust and listening to engine brraaps instead of breathing fresh mountain air and soaking up the silence of a winter’s day.

Unfortunately, the Lassen did not set the example we were hoping for when it comes to switching over to a “closed unless designated open” management framework. It’s a big shift, and the Forest Service is not exactly the most nimble agency, so making the shift is sort of like getting a huge ship to change course. The Lassen’s plan does refer to “areas designated for OSV use” and “areas not designated for cross-country OSV use” but in reality the map still shows a forest where OSV use is allowed everywhere except a few distinct areas where it’s prohibited. Low elevation areas that rarely receive snow, including 50% of the forest’s mule deer winter range, remain open to OSVs in the draft plan. The draft plan also fails to provide provide projections for rare and threatened wildlife species such as the Sierra Nevada red fox.

Overall, the draft plan designates 78% of the Lassen National Forest as open to cross-country OSV travel. In short, while the draft plan does prohibit OSV use within most of the important non-motorized recreation areas on the Lassen, it misses the mark when it comes to thoughtfully designating specific areas where OSV use is appropriate and instead relies on the old paradigm of allowing OSV use everywhere except specific areas where it’s prohibited. Of course, we’re not quite finished – it’s only a draft plan right now – and Winter Wildlands Alliance will continue our work to ensure appropriate implementation of the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule.

You can find out more about winter travel planning on the Lassen and other forests in California by visiting our California travel planning page.