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.

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.

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 handful 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.

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.

What happens on the Lassen will impact winter travel planning across the country. The comment period is only open until November 20. Please use the form and template below to submit your comments.