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.

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.

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