“MAPS ARE ESSENTIAL,” wrote Mark Jenkins in his award-winning book The Hard Way. “Planning a journey without a map is like building a house without drawings.”

Whether you’re dreaming about new places to explore, or new lines to ski, or just a more efficient route from point A to point B, maps are a backcountry skier’s best friend. And of course when you find yourself turned around deep in the wilderness, with no cell reception, you’re glad you’ve got a 7.5 topo map and a compass.

But did you know maps are also powerful advocacy tools? As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Maps provide us a way to clearly show the Forest Service how we access and explore the backcountry, helping to make the case during current forest planning efforts for protecting important non-motorized recreation areas.

Using regional maps during pre-scoping for travel planning on the Inyo National Forest

In our work with winter travel planning, Winter Wildlands Alliance uses maps to understand how different types of recreation overlap, and how recreation and wildlife habitat overlap; to document important non-motorized recreation areas; and to determine where snowmobile use is appropriate. When we submit written comments to the Forest Service we almost always include a map that illustrates where skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers are accessing the forest, which backcountry areas provide high-quality non-motorized recreation opportunities, and our suggestions for where snowmobile use should be allowed.

A lot of this work comes down to documenting where skiers and snowshoers are recreating, and recently we’ve been exploring ways to do this more efficiently. (Unfortunately we’re not able to visit all of the places people backcountry ski ourselves — wouldn’t that be a dream job?! — but there are a number of online tools to help skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers tell us where their priority areas are.)

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Last year Winter Wildlands Alliance teamed up with Powder Project to better document how skiers are using our National Forests. Powder Project is an online resource that allows backcountry skiers and splitboarders to share information about ski lines and skin tracks, to talk about gear, find partners, and also find links to avalanche centers and other avalanche information.

But Powder Project is more than just a cool site for getting information on where to ski. Data collected from the website also helps Winter Wildlands Alliance and our partners identify and advocate for protecting important backcountry ski terrain. When you add information to Powder Project it becomes part of a larger digital database that Winter Wildlands Alliance is building to help inform our advocacy work. Then, when a National Forest decides to launch into winter travel planning we pull up our database, overlay all of the ski lines and approaches we’ve collected onto a map of the particular forest as a graphic means to show the Forest Service how and where — exactly — the non-motorized community uses that forest. Documenting where skiers and snowboarders are recreating is the first step towards protecting those recreation opportunities.

Documenting where skiers and snowboarders are recreating is the first step towards protecting those recreation opportunities.

Maps also present a new way for avalanche professionals to better understand decision-making in avalanche terrain. Right now a team of scientists at Montana State University is using GPS tracking and logbook surveys of backcountry skiers to better understand how backcountry travel practices line up with the “human factors” in decision making. By comparing maps of where skiers go with information about their decision-making processes these scientists hope to better understand what types of terrain decisions backcountry recreationists make. Their research will help avalanche professionals tailor their messaging to better address the human factor, and to help keep us all safer in avalanche terrain. The data they collect will also help Winter Wildlands and other groups advocate for better stewardship of the public lands we all enjoy.

If you want to get involved, have fun with maps and be proactive about protecting the places where you play or part of ground-breaking research that will directly contribute to your safety, check out www.powderproject.com and www.montana.edu/snowscience/tracks.

UPCOMING EVENT: Winter Wildlands Alliance is working with REI to document where backcountry recreationists play. Join Hilary Eisen at REI in Bozeman, Montana on March 23 to learn how to use online mapping tools to gather and share information about backcountry skiing areas and be part of the planning process. RSVP online here.

Montana – Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Winter Travel Planning

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) is taking another look at how it manages motorized winter use under its 2009 Forest Plan and is considering amending the plan. The Forest Service’s decision will determine how the agency manages snowmobiles across the eight mountain ranges, vast backcountry, and world-class wildlife habitat within the 3.3 million-acre forest.

You can read through the supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) on Forest Service website.  If you were involved in this planning effort back in the early 2000’s the alternatives the Forest Service is comparing may look familiar.  That’s because they haven’t changed.  However, when the BDNF wrote it’s 2009 forest plan it failed to analyze how snowmobile use under each alternative would impact other resources (like wilderness lands, wildlife habitat, and backcountry skiing).  This SEIS compares the impacts from snowmobile use under the current plan versus the impacts under the other alternatives considered when the plan was written.  The agency is required to minimize these impacts and we feel that change is needed.

We are asking the BDNF to amend the Forest Plan to no longer allow snowmobiling on the eastern side of Mt Jefferson.  For over 6 years we have worked with the Forest Service to monitor snowmobile use in this area and this monitoring has clearly shown that the current motorized/non-motorized boundary is ineffective.  Snowmobiles frequently travel throughout the non-motorized area in the upper Hellroaring basin and into the adjacent BLM Wilderness Study Area.  Moving the boundary to the Continental Divide will better protect wild lands and restore opportunities for  backcountry skiing that many feel have been lost on Mt Jefferson in recent years.

We would also like to see the BDNF take the common-sense approach of closing low-elevation or low-snow areas where snowmobiling rarely occurs.  This pre-emptive action would protect big game winter range and allow the Forest Service to better utilize it’s limited resources.

Please take a moment to write to the Forest Service and request that the agency do more to protect Mt. Jefferson and other important winter wild lands on the BDNF.  Comments should be sent to Jan Bowey at jbowey@fs.fed.us.

Comments are due by March 3, 2016.

California – Lassen National Forest Winter Travel Planning

The Lassen National Forest recently published a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) as part of their winter travel management planning process. This document compares different alternatives for how the Forest Service will manage snowmobiles and other “over-snow vehicles” (OSVs) on the Lassen moving forward. The Lassen is the first forest to do winter travel management under the new OSV Rule and things are not off to a good start. The DEIS compares four alternatives yet only one of these alternatives protects opportunities for human-powered winter recreation and none of the Alternatives comply with the OSV Rule.

The four alternatives are as follows: Alternative 1 (the status quo), Alternative 2 (the Proposed Action), Alternative 3 (based off of the “Skiers Alternative” submitted by WWA and Snowlands Network), and Alternative 4 (the “motorized emphasis” alternative).

Alternative 3 is the only alternative that the Forest Service has analyzed that brings some level of balance to the Lassen National Forest. This alternative would protect a handful of areas for human-powered recreation, including the McGowan and Lake Almanor Nordic trails, the Colby area, and the area surrounding the Bizz Johnson trail. Alternative 3 also includes a non-motorized area north of Lassen National Park to better protect the Park and the Caribou Wilderness from the impacts of motorized recreation. Even with these protections, however, Alternative 3 does not close a single currently designated OSV route and would still leave 76% of the forest open to cross-country OSV travel. Because Alternative 3 protects important non-motorized recreation areas while also continuing to provide ample opportunities for motorized recreation we ask that you tell the Forest Service to adopt it as the preferred alternative.

However, despite the balance of recreational opportunities we see in Alternative 3, even it fails to meet the requirements of the OSV Rule. In the Environmental Impact Statement the Forest Service is required to show how each specific route and area has been located to minimize damage to natural resources, minimize conflicts with other uses (including non-motorized recreation), and minimize impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat. This DEIS doesn’t show how the open areas, or designated routes, in each Alternative are located in a manner that minimizes the impacts listed above. Winter travel planning is important and the Forest Service needs to get it right. In addition to telling the Forest Service to adopt Alternative 3 as the Lassen’s preferred alternative, please tell them that they must modify this Alternative so that designated OSV routes and the boundaries of OSV open areas are located to minimize the impacts of motorized recreation.

The Forest Service needs to hear from skiers and snowshoers who recreate on the Lassen. Please click here to comment on the DEIS and help shape the Lassen winter travel plan. Comments are due by March 15.

For more information on the DEIS and the Lassen winter travel planning process please go to http://data.ecosystem-management.org/nepaweb/fs-usda-pop.php?project=45832

“Studying mountain snowpack is vital to our quality of life” read a recent headline in the Idaho Statesman. The article explored research conducted by geoscientists at Boise State University and how snow provides 80% of the water across the western US.   But if its that important shouldn’t all of us, young and old, be educated on the issue? The answer is yes, and to help make it happen Winter Wildlands Alliance, the US Forest Service and Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area have further expanded on an already decade long SnowSchool collaboration.   This fall a team of experts installed an innovative new snowpack monitoring weather station on-site at the Bogus Basin SnowSchool program. The station boasts snowpack depth, water equivalent and other sensors with the data available online. And accompanying curriculum designed by WWA aims to greatly enhance the learning experience of some 2,000 K-12 students who will participate in the program this winter.  In the long run WWA aims to use this project as a national model and bring similar weather stations online across the national network of 55 SnowSchool sites.

US Forest Service Collaborates with SnowSchool

Working off of a grant made possible by the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, hydrologists Charlie Luce and Tom Black provided expertise and equipment to get the station installed during the summer and fall of 2015. Along with an array of instruments (click here to see the data online) the station utilizes a new gamma radiation SWE sensor. This technology is as fresh as the fallen snow and has emerged as the snow science field pushes to better understand and measure the water content of snow. Citing his 2014 research documenting the decline of mountain snow and water in the western US, Luce hopes this SnowSchool project will help educated more people about the issues surrounding snow and climate change.

Enhancing Kids’ Learning

SnowSchool has always been about harnessing the power of snow to connect kids with nature. In making this dream a reality the program has engaged over 170,000 participants nationally since 2005.   However, one potential problem with a school field trip program like SnowSchool is that while the outdoor experience inherently generates enthusiasm, all too often there is little or no connection back to the classroom. The result can be a weak “one-and-done” experiential program that misses an enormous opportunity to spark further exploration and learning. The new weather station and WWA’s accompanying science curriculum helps solve this problem by providing teachers with a powerful and easy to use classroom resource. And extending students’ learning experience and connecting it back to the classroom ensures that SnowSchool makes good on its aspiration to foster ecological literacy among our youngest generation. The hoped-for result is a 4-month learning experience and science project that kids will love!

We are excited to begin our second season of working with volunteer backcountry scientists on the Helena National Forest. Winter Wildlands Alliance is coordinating with Wild Things Unlimited (WTU) and the Montana Wilderness Association, with support from the Helena National Forest, and Defenders of Wildlife, to get citizen scientists into the backcountry to monitor forest carnivore presence and activity along the Continental Divide in Montana. We will be using a combination of snow tracking and camera traps to document forest carnivores – which species and where they are – on the Helena National Forest.

The goal for project is to find out more about how forest carnivores, including lynx and wolverine, are using Forest Service lands along the Continental Divide. The area where we will be working, the Little Prickly Pear Creek drainage, is just over the Divide from where WTU has previously documented wolverine and lynx but little is known about how forest carnivores use the area on the east side of the Divide. The Helena National Forest is revising their long-term land management plan and the information collected during this project will help the Forest Service better understand the wildlife resources on the forest and guide management decisions that can help to protect wildlife and the wild lands they depend upon.

Last year backcountry scientist volunteers, along with WTU staff, conducted 53 snow-tracking surveys covering almost 200 miles. They documented lynx, wolverine, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, martens, weasels and more throughout the project area.  Volunteers were critical to the success of the project last year, allowing us to more than double the number of surveys conducted over the winter.

During our training workshop for new volunteers this past weekend we documented bobcat, coyote, both short and long-tailed weasels, snowshoe hare, and a variety of ungulate species. Snow tracking is a great way to read the landscape and understand how other species travel and live in wild places in the winter. For example, one group of volunteers came across a bloody cottontail rabbit buried in the snow. After studying tracks they were able to deduce that an epic battle had occurred, starting with a sneak attack by a weasel and ending in the rabbit’s demise (and the weasel’s dinner). We’re looking forward to reading more stories in the snow and gathering important information to inform the forest planning this winter.