Shutdown forces closure of Mt. Rainier National Park to vehicles. KOMO News Photo  (Click to read full story.)

As the federal government shutdown drags on, its impacts are being felt by people across the country and in all walks of life, including backcountry skiers and other snowsports enthusiasts.

The vast majority of winter backcountry recreation occurs on Forest Service and Park Service lands, and since the shutdown began most of the people who care for these lands and manage the recreation that occurs upon them have been temporarily laid off from their jobs. 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed and those who are working must do so without a paycheck. Although in some places volunteers and partner organizations have stepped in to pick up trash and stock and clean outhouses, or even pay some federal employees so that they can do their jobs, this only makes up for a very small amount of what the federal agencies do. Of course backcountry skiers and the public at large, prefer to be able to access and enjoy public lands, but access without management can lead to big issues.

Access and Safety

Photo credit: National Park Service

Many of the roads and trailheads that are normally plowed for winter access are not currently being plowed or maintained. For example, all vehicle access to Rainier National Park is closed during the shutdown, and while you can walk in, there’s nowhere to park outside of the Park, therefore essentially eliminating access to Rainier. With Rainier closed, ski guides and avalanche courses are re-routing to places on Forest Service land, such as Mt Baker, increasing crowding in already busy areas.

While there are some roads on federal land that are plowed by non-federal entities, or roads that access communities and therefore must be plowed for the purposes of public safety (such as the road through Yellowstone National Park that accesses Cooke City, MT), agency staff are not able to respond to emergency calls. Although local search and rescue teams remain active, the lack of agency staffing may slow down rescues because search and rescue teams won’t have access to valuable information and logistical support. Therefore, those venturing into the backcountry, and even remote frontcountry areas, are at an elevated risk.

Trail grooming is also curtailed during the shutdown. In some areas local businesses are stepping up to cover grooming costs because their business depends on visitor access to groomed trails. Of course, in many places local partners already do the bulk of trail grooming and this grooming is not impacted by the shutdown. But, many cross-country ski trails are maintained by the Forest Service or Park Service and these trails will not be groomed during the shutdown.

Park Service Plan Would Fund Maintenance During Shutdown (Montana Public Radio)

Finally, although law enforcement staff and avalanche forecasters are still working during the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential for public safety, they’re not getting paid. For weeks. Think about that the next time you check the avalanche forecast.

Management and Stewardship

During past shutdowns National Parks have been closed to public entry, but the Trump administration has changed this policy, keeping most of the gates open despite not having any staff on hand to manage visitation. As a result, trash and filthy outhouses in National Parks have gotten a lot of press over the last couple of weeks. These are highly visible reminders of some of the essential services that federal employees provide for the public. In many places, especially popular winter recreation areas and National Parks, volunteers have stepped in to empty trash cans and clean or re-stock outhouses. Stories about the public helping to care for public lands in this visceral way have made the rounds from National Public Radio to local newspapers. However, stewardship runs much deeper than trash and toilet paper and visitor management is much more than cleaning up after the visitors. Public land managers maintain facilities, protect natural resources, and help the public to better understand and appreciate the places they visit, among many other duties.

Photo Credit: Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless (via Facebook)

Unfortunately, some in the motorized community see the government shutdown as an opportunity to ride in Wilderness areas and other places that are closed to motor vehicles to protect natural resources, wildlife, or opportunities for quiet recreation. Stories and photos of snowmobiles riding past “no snowmobiling” signs, or high-marking Wilderness bowls are proliferating across social media as the shutdown continues. We’re quite disappointed in the lack of respect that this behavior demonstrates and we hope that our counterparts in the motorized community will soon speak out against such activities. If you see illegal snowmobile use you can document it and report it to the local Forest Service office once it re-opens. Documentation should include geo-located photos (use a smartphone), identifying features such as license plates or registration stickers, and any other information that will help law enforcement investigate and cite violators.

National Parks Face Years of Damage from Government Shutdown (National Geographic)

Finally, right now, all planning – from forest plans to timber sales – is on hold, adding delay to already lengthy processes. Partnerships, collaboratives, and other non-governmental efforts that complement these planning processes are ongoing, but without a major partner at the table – the Forest Service/BLM/Park Service – there’s only so much everybody else can do.

Research and Education

All Forest Service and Park Service/Department of Interior SnowSchool sites are closed during the shutdown. Every year Winter Wildlands Alliance’s 65-site National SnowSchool program introduces thousands of students to winter ecology and the joy of exploring public lands on snowshoes. Pulling this off depends on a complex series of community partnerships/collaborations at the local level. Every community and SnowSchool site is structured a little different, but many SnowSchool sites depend on the USFS or NPS/DOI playing a critical leadership role.

Government Shutdown Causes Slowdown in Scientific Research (NPR NEWS)

During the shutdown USFS and NPS conservation education and interpretation staff are furloughed (placing significant financial stress on these professionals). And as most public schools are back this week from the holiday break, we have seen the first wave of cancelled SnowSchool field trips. Thus far this scenario applies to about a dozen SnowSchool sites. It is difficult to gauge the cumulative impact of this as the shutdown is ongoing. However, hundreds of students can be served by just a handful of sites during a single day of SnowSchool. So if the shutdown continues it could impact thousands of would-be SnowSchool students. With a finite number of winter days and site coordinators’ limited ability to reschedule, this likely means many kids will miss out on their SnowSchool experience this year.

The good news is that SnowSchool sites operated by nordic centers, nature centers, school districts and other non-profits are still open and taking out their first groups of students this week!

Weather station maintenance – one of many services on hold during the shutdown

The shutdown is also impacting many scientific research efforts. Some of these projects directly tie into the work we do, and many more are critical to understanding climate change and snow. For example, WWA SnowSchool’s plans to collaborate with the 2019 NASA SnowEx campaign are on hold due to the shutdown. During SnowEx, NASA aircraft fly overhead in states across the West and scan mountain snowpack with new sophisticated sensors designed to detect snow water content. The plan was to have students at SnowSchool sites in relevant locations hand-collect snowpack data and send it to NASA scientists to be compared with aircraft gathered data. This would give students a very authentic citizen science learning experience! But with NASA scientists furloughed during the critical project preparation period, 2019 SnowEx may or may not be rebooted.

To help students learn more about the science of snow, WWA partnered with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in 2015 to install an innovative new SnowSchool Weather Station at the National Flagship Site in Boise. Though the RMRS is closed due to the shutdown, the station continues to collect data. Problems with data collection/display may occur however if the weather station instruments needs maintenance during this period.

Similarly, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s SNOTEL station data remains accessible for now. This is important as many student across the West study historical and current snowpack data from their local SNOTEL site as part of their SnowSchool experience. The SNOTEL program runs on funds from the previous year’s budget.

Shutdown Highlights a Larger Issue

The government shutdown has led to extensive environmental damage, restricted access, a halt in planning, and interruption of important scientific research, as well as lost wages and financial stress for hundreds of thousands people. On the bright side, this shutdown is demonstrating just how important of a role federal employees and the Agencies they work for play in protecting and managing public lands.

Visitors Chainsaw Iconic Joshua Trees in National Park During Shutdown (LiveScience)

For decades Congress has been tightening the screws on our land management agencies. The Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service all struggle with declining budgets, diminishing resources, and increased responsibility and visitor use. Our public land agencies need the funding and resources necessary to overcome infrastructure and planning backlogs and take on new challenges. People are constantly clamoring for new trails, access points, facilities, and designations but all of these take additional resources. Doing more with less only gets us so far. Congress needs to not only end the shutdown, it must also fully fund the land management agencies.

Click here to contact the President and your representatives in Congress today

 

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