Shana Maziarz crosses the Hulahula River to start a long day of earning turns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brennan Lagasse

IT’S BEEN A COUPLE OF MONTHS since the last Winter Wildlands Alliance policy update, not because there’s nothing to talk about, but because I ducked out of the office this spring to track wolverines in Mongolia. While in Mongolia, I ran into some unexpected challenges that illustrated how climate change is impacting wild snowscapes across the globe. It reminded me that, as backcountry skiers, our adventures take us to the world’s wildest places and we’re often among the first to see them change. As credible witnesses to the impacts of a changing climate on our mountains and snowscapes, backcountry skiers are in a unique position to speak up.

This is why, earlier this month, with our Outdoor Alliance partners, we submitted a range of testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Forests, Parks, and Public Lands for a hearing on the impacts of climate change on public lands recreation (scroll down to see the letter we submitted). Testimony included front-lines accounts from Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassadors Caroline Gleich (writing from Mount Everest), Luc Mehl (from Alaska), Brennan Lagasse (recently returned to Lake Tahoe from the Arctic) and Clare Gallagher (from Colorado), as well as our friend Ben Hatchett, a climate researcher in Northern California/Nevada.

You can share your own experiences with lawmakers and urge them into action by joining the Adventurers for Climate Action campaign today!

Meanwhile, we’ve been staying busy this spring with ongoing winter travel planning and OSV use designation in California, among other things. Over the past couple of months, we filed an objection to the Stanislaus winter travel plan and participated in objection resolution meetings related to the Eldorado and Tahoe winter travel plans. Each of these plans has many positive elements, but through the objection process we hope to improve a few key shortcomings and help the Forest Service develop solid winter travel plans for the central and northern Sierra. We had similar objections to all three draft plans: we’re concerned about the designation of some high-value backcountry ski zones (and designated near-natural areas) for open snowmobile use, the failure to protect the non-motorized character and experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the failure to adequately address the Forest Service’s legal obligation to minimize over-snow vehicle impacts on natural resources and wildlife and on non-motorized activities.

Meanwhile, in Montana, forest planning on the Custer Gallatin is in full-swing. The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the revised forest plan in early March. The comment period ends June 6. There are few places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin. Through work in a variety of coalitions, we’re advocating for a vision for the forest that balances conservation, recreation, and wildlife values. Find out more and submit a comment online here.

In other policy news, the state of Utah has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to exempt Utah from the Roadless Rule, which rule happens to protect the majority of backcountry ski terrain in Utah. We’re working with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, and our partners in Utah’s conservation community to push back against this attack on the Roadless Rule. You can help out by sending a letter to USDA Secretary Perdue and Under Secretary Hubbard using Outdoor Alliance’s online form. Perdue and Hubbard have been feeling the heat and haven’t responded to Utah’s petition, yet. Help us keep the pressure on.

Finally, I want to bring your attention to Minnesota, where the Trump Administration recently renewed federal leases for a sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are an amazing place to visit in winter, providing endless opportunities to cross-country ski, showshoe, and winter camp in one of the quietest places in the country. This week, Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum introduced legislation compelling the U.S. Forest Service to complete a study on toxic mining near the Boundary Waters and halt mineral leasing in the watershed of the Boundary Waters until the study is complete. Our partners at Save the Boundary Waters are leading the charge to protect this special place, and you can get involved here.

We’ve updated the Bill Tracker page on our website if you’re interested in seeing what other legislation we’re supporting, and tracking, on the Hill this year. There are a number of good bills, including bipartisan legislation to establish full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, a House bill to protect the Arctic Refuge, and legislation to codify the Roadless Rule and put an end to state-by-state exemptions from the Rule.

That’s all for now!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director


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Comments are now closed on the Eldorado NF winter travel plan.

The Eldorado National Forest failed to seriously consider and analyze any significant further restrictions on OSV use and actually proposed to open many popular and historic cross-country and backcountry ski zones to motorized use, over the concerns of skiers who value solitude and quiet winter wildlands.

The forest’s Proposed Action (Alternative 2) failed in a number of ways to comply with NEPA and the 2015 OSV Rule. It also proposed reversing historic protections and opens many important and longstanding non-motorized areas to snowmobiles, including Anderson Ridge, numerous traditionally non-motorized areas accessed from the Carson Pass corridor, the historic Van Vleck closure, and the area around the Ludlow Hut. Alternative 4 was even worse, proposing to allow snowmobiles in the Loon Lake winter recreation area, in the Caples Creek recommended wilderness area, in several semi-primitive non-motorized areas, and in the Round Top Biological/Geological Special Interest Area!

We suggested that the forest go back to the drawing board, as the Lassen had to do, to come up with a revised or supplemental DEIS with a broader range of alternatives. Short of that, we advocated for Alternative 3 as the only alternative that presented a clear-eyed vision for winter travel management that recognizes historically non-motorized areas, focuses OSV designations in zones where OSV use actually occurs, minimizes user conflict and acknowledges that not all parts of the forest receive sufficient snow for OSV recreation.

Click here for our full summary and analysis, maps and organizational comment letter.

Summer = skiing in shorts season

July has been full of news and policy developments and, as usual, we’ve got lots to updates to share. Winter travel planning is staying hot through the summer, Utah Senator Mike Lee has a bucket o’ bad ideas about what to do with public lands, and we’re gathering data to find out what the local economic impact of human-powered snowsports is for two national forests – the Custer Gallatin in Montana and Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison in Colorado.

Winter Travel Planning –  news from California and Montana

Skiing the steeps on the Eldorado. Photo by Erik Bennett.

It’s summer time and winter travel planning is HOT. The Eldorado National Forest, located to the south and west of Lake Tahoe, issued a Draft EIS for its winter travel plan in early June. Comments are due August 6, so we’ve been busy analyzing the plan and working on our comments this month. The Eldorado’s DEIS is pretty disappointing and we’ve got plenty to comment on. The forest’s Proposed Action (Alternative 2) reverses historic protections and opens many important and longstanding non-motorized areas to snowmobiles. The “motorized emphasis alternative” (Alternative 4) is even worse, proposing to open even more non-motorized areas to OSVs, including amending the Forest Plan to allow OSVs in recommended wilderness, semi-primitive non-motorized, and Biological/Geological Special Interest areas. Additionally, the DEIS has a very narrow range of Alternatives (3 out of 4 are essentially the same), and misses the mark in a number of ways when it comes to complying with the OSV Rule. To learn more about the Eldorado’s plan, and submit a comment, visit our website and comment using the online form we’ve provided.

Winter travel planning is happening outside of California too. In 2016 the Bitterroot National Forest, in Montana, finalized a travel plan they’d been working on for almost a decade. Their plan addresses year-round travel management (all uses) and although it was started long before the OSV Rule was in place, it was finalized under the Rule. We are very supportive of the Bitterroot’s winter travel plan and, when a coalition of groups that oppose the plan sued the Forest Service, we joined our conservation partners in defending the plan. On June 29 the Judge issued a decision on the case and upheld the travel plan. The ruling affirmed that the Bitterroot’s decisions were well reasoned and supported by the administrative record. The ruling also affirmed that the Forest Service has the discretion to limit non-conforming uses such as snowmobiling to protect the social or ecological character of potential wilderness areas, not just their physical attributes. This was an important win for protecting quiet winter wildlands.

Public Lands Heist

Have you heard about Senator Mike Lee’s latest idea for selling off public lands?  Senator Mike Lee (R, UT) is proposing three bills to get the West to be “more like Missouri or Illinois” (that’s a direct quote). He’s introduced one, which would abolish the Antiquities Act (Utah’s favorite target). The two in the works are even worse. One would allow anyone to take over public lands for private profit, and another seeks to transfer all our national public lands to states to control or develop. Our friends over at the Outdoor Alliance are collecting signatures on a petition opposing these bills, which they’ll be hand delivering to Senator Lee’s office in D.C. Add your name here!

Economic Impact Surveys

In addition to winter travel planning we’re also working on a variety of forest plans. Two of these are of particular importance for backcountry skiers – the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests in Colorado (think Crested Butte and Telluride), and the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana (Bozeman, Big Sky, Red Lodge, West Yellowstone…). We’re working with our Outdoor Alliance partners on both of these forest plan revisions and now through August 16, we’re running a couple of surveys that we need your help with. The data we get from these surveys will help us piece together the economic impact of human-powered snowsports, climbing, mountain biking, paddling, and hiking are on these forests. In turn, that sort of economic data will help us advocate to protect non-motorized outdoor recreation opportunities during forest planning. If you’ve skied (or otherwise recreated) on the GMUG or the Custer Gallatin, you can help by taking the appropriate surveys. The Colorado surveys are online here and the Montana surveys are online here.

Each survey only takes about 15 minutes, and for each survey you take you’ll be entered to win sweet gear for your next outdoor adventure.

Winter Wildlands Alliance HQ, Boise, Idaho

Winter Wildlands Alliance staff and Board of Directors convened at headquarters in Boise early in June for our annual summer board meeting, highway cleanup and whitewater session. We’re dialing in a new strategic plan and it’s always inspiring to gather together and talk about WWA’s future and the opportunities and challenges ahead.

And speaking of the future, we’re excited to welcome our new Backcountry Film Festival Manager, Melinda Quick! She’ll be starting July 16. Stay tuned for more on Melinda and her plans for the upcoming festival season.

Farm Bill and the Roadless Rule

On June 21, the House passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill contains two attacks on the Roadless Rule: 1) a loophole that would allow logging and roadbuilding in about 10 million acres of roadless areas; and 2) an exemption from the Rule for Alaska’s national forests.

In addition to targeting the Roadless Rule, it also contains several attacks on bedrock environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Forest Management Act. Taken together, the provisions in the House bill would essentially exempt everything the Forest Service does in the forest management space from environmental review to public input.

Meanwhile, the Senate will likely vote on its version of a farm bill this week. Right now the Senate version doesn’t include the scary forestry provisions that the House version contains, and we are cautiously optimistic that the Senate will keep those provisions out of its bill.

Early next week, please contact your Senators to support the Senate’s effort to produce a bipartisan farm bill by including a federal forestry title focused on conservation, collaboration, and other bipartisan policies. There will likely be a Conference Committee the following week to reconcile the two versions of the bill and get it signed into law in August.

Winter Travel Planning

It wouldn’t be a Winter Wildlands Alliance policy update without talking about winter travel planning. We submitted comments on the Tahoe draft EIS on May 25th (you can read our comments here). WWA worked closely with our two local grassroots groups – Snowlands Network and Tahoe Backcountry Alliance – to draft these comments, which generally support the Forest Service’s proposed action with a few key modifications to protect super-important backcountry ski zones for non-motorized recreation.

Human-powered on the Eldorado NF. Photo by Erik Bennett

Now, our attention has turned to the Eldorado winter travel plan.

The Eldorado National Forest, just south of the Tahoe NF, published its draft EIS on June 22. Comments are due August 6. We’re just starting to dig into the draft plan, but so far it’s not looking good. Unlike the Tahoe, which analyzed a wide range of alternatives and had a pretty decent DEIS overall, 3 out of 4 of the Eldorado’s alternatives are basically the status quo with minor differences.

The one exception is the alternative that we developed (Alternative 3), which focuses OSV use in areas that receive consistent snowfall, where there is existing OSV infrastructure (trails and staging areas), and where it doesn’t conflict with non-motorized recreation.

Once we finish reviewing the Eldorado DEIS we’ll post information on how to comment as well as our analysis and suggested talking points on our website here.

Human-powered on the Tahoe National Forest
Photo by Ming Poon

 

1. Winter Travel Plans Moving Forward

April brought the long-anticipated release of the Lassen National Forest’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and draft Record of Decision (ROD) for its winter travel plan, and also the publication of the Tahoe National Forest’s draft plan. The Lassen was the first national forest in the country to start winter travel planning under the 2015 OSV Rule. It’s been a long, bumpy road, but now the end is in sight.

The plan is far from perfect, but we’re generally ready to live with it. There are a few things we’d still like to achieve, and we’re working with Snowlands Network to file some specific objections. Our biggest points of contention are: (1) that the Forest chose to designate a couple of high-value quiet recreation areas for OSV use without very convincing rationale; and (2) we don’t agree with how they’re proposing to allow OSV use in areas near the Pacific Crest Trail. That said, we’re glad to see that the plan sets a minimum snow depth, protects important wildlife habitat and many of the non-motorized recreation areas we’ve advocated for, and generally focuses OSV use in places that actually get snow and provide winter recreation opportunities. Click here for a more detailed summary.

The Tahoe’s draft EIS is now out for public comment. We’ve posted some preliminary information, links to documents and a mapping tool on our website, and are working with our partners and grassroots groups to finalize our organizational comments. We hope to publish our online comment tool next week. In contrast to the Lassen plan, we’re very pleased with the level of analysis on this one. It’s clear that the line officers and planners on the Tahoe have a much better understanding of the landscape and of human-powered winter recreation.

Also in California, we’re expecting to see a draft EIS for the Eldorado National Forest winter travel plan any day. All updates regarding winter travel planning in the Sierra will be posted here. Elsewhere, we’re also expecting a draft EIS from the 10 Lakes region of the Kootenai (in Montana) this spring, and a draft EIS from the Shoshone in September. And scoping for winter travel planning is supposed to start soon on the north zone of the Idaho-Panhandle. Stay tuned!

2. Rallying for Skiers and Snowshoers in the Eastern Cascades

Our grassroots group in Wenatchee, WA — El Sendero Ski and Snowshoe Club — has been working for years to establish a non-motorized winter recreation area on state lands. They’ve worked through a state-level public process and a local collaborative planning process to develop the non-motorized area proposal. Through all of this, El Sendero has worked with the local snowmobile club to get their support, but now the whole effort is threatened to be derailed by a small number of snowmobilers who are opposed to any sort of non-motorized designation. El Sendero has put out the call for help to rally support for this non-motorized area. We’ve created a super simple comment form, so if you could take two minutes to send in a letter to Chelan County that would be awesome. Thanks!!!

3. …And some rare good news from D.C.:

Late last year the Interior Department floated a proposal to drastically raise entrance fees at a number of popular National Parks. Interior’s proposal would have more than doubled the fee to visit 117 Parks, to $70 for some! This proposal generated massive public backlash (WWA’s alert had a higher response rate than any alert we’ve ever sent out). Over 90% of those who commented were opposed to a fee increase and many called out Secretary Zinke for slashing the Park Service budget at the same time he was calling for raising fees to address the Park Service maintenance backlog.

We’re happy to report that Interior seems to have listened to the thousands of people who commented on the fee hike proposal and announced that they are going with a very modest fee increase of $5. Outdoor Alliance put out a good blog post on this, and I encourage you to check it out. You can also click here to see what it will cost to visit your favorite parks this summer.

Oh and last but not least, one of the bills we’re big supporters of, Recreation Not Red Tape, passed out of its House committee, narrowly escaping being gutted by a last-minute amendment from Representative Cheney (WY). The outdoor recreation community came out in force to keep the bill intact, and our voices made a difference.