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

 

To help SnowSchool educators prepare for teaching so many diverse students we annually provide on-snow field workshops and regional training opportunities. And this year we’ve broadened these efforts…

Through Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool we strive every year to be a national leader in promoting winter outdoor education for youth.  In recognition of our efforts on this front WWA was invited this past month to present on the SnowSchool program at the annual conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education.  In attendance at the “A Force for the Future” themed conference in Spokane WA were leaders and innovators in the field of environmental education from dozens of countries covering all continents.  The focus of the SnowSchool presentation was WWA’s unique snow science curriculum and our recent success working collaboratively with local organizations to serve youth in diverse communities.  Co-presenting with the Northern Idaho Flagship SnowSchool Site (Selkirik Outdoor Leadership and Education) we detailed engaging hands-on snow science activities that can be done almost anywhere and that connect to K-12 science curriculum.  This type of ongoing outreach and exposure helps sustain program growth nationally.  Look for more updates from us on new SnowSchool sites as the season progresses!  Click here for more information on SnowSchool.

Adventure with the Winter Wildlands Alliance in our hometown for our first annual “Wild Weekend” Friday, Nov 2 – Saturday, Nov 3, 2018.

Join the Treasure Valley backcountry community as we dive deep into the heart and soul of the winter human-powered experience and raise funds supporting the Alliance’s advocacy and education efforts – both local and national.

4th Annual SnowBall: A Ski Bum Gala

Begin your Wild Weekend dancing the night away at the 4th Annual SnowBall: A Ski Bum Gala on Friday, Nov 2 at 7:00 PM at the Linen Building. Benefitting SnowSchool and our local site at Bogus Basin, this event promises delicious food, drinks, silent/live auction items, and live music provided by Jonathan Warren and the Billy Goats. Event page and tickets here.

14th Annual Backcountry Film Festival World Premiere

After you dance the night away with your fellow ski bums, join us the following evening, Saturday, Nov 3 for the 14th Annual Backcountry Film Festival World Premiere! Climate action, environmental preservation, natural resources, snow culture, and of course, POW SHOTS: you’ll find it all in the award-winning line-up. Films, drinks, raffle and auction prizes galore – this is the traditional event of the winter season you cannot miss! Pre-party at the North Face store in downtown Boise from 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM featuring local band, Red Light Challenge. Film Festival doors open at 6:00 PM and films start at 7:00 PM at the Egyptian Theatre. Event page and tickets here.

We can’t wait to see you there! Email info@winterwildlands.org with questions.

Do you remember the first time you ventured out into the forest to explore the quiet wilds of winter?  For some, such memories conjure up a sense of wonder at the fascinating mysteries locked in snow and ice.  For others this experience is forever linked with a sense of freedom and the inherent joy in a snow-cushioned romp with friends.  Snow connects kids to nature like few things can, and for thousands of students across the country our SnowSchool sites are their first introduction to winter wildlands.

And while it’s not winter yet, we can all feel it getting closer.  So in anticipation of the coming cold weather SnowSchool sites nation-wide are ramping up operations to help introduce thousands of students to winter this year.  Every winter Winter Wildlands Alliance brings our SnowSchool program to new communities of kids across the country by working to establish new SnowSchool sites. By partnering with organizations in diverse areas WWA can provide the educational resources and leaderhsip support necessary to quickly launch a winter program to serve new populations of students. As a result of our ongoing efforts WWA is adding 4 new SnowSchool sites in anticipation of the coming winter – Siskiyou Field Institute in Oregon, Northwest Avalanche Center in northern Washington, Salmon Valley Stewardship in Salmon Idaho and Kenai Wildlife Refuge in Alaska!  Please click the provided links to learn about the amazing work each organization is already doing.  While every site is as unique as the communities they serve, all SnowSchool sites share the common goal of getting kids outside in the winter to experience the wilds of winter.  Look for more updates as the season approaches!

-Kerry McClay, Ed.D.

WWA National SnowSchool Director

Learn more at www.snowschool.org