By Andy Dappen for Backcountry Magazine, 2016

For many skiers, the 50-year evolution of snowmobile use on public lands has represented an on-going loss of habitat. That’s certainly been my story. Places where I once cross-country skied or ski toured for peaceful exercise, soft turns, quiet ascents, or serene meditations have been consistently plucked from my plate as snowmobiles spread onto ever steeper slopes and into ever deeper snows.

The pace of change has been slow but relentless. My earliest losses occurred in the late 1960s when forest roads and flat meadows in the Mount Hood National Forest where I Nordic skied started seeing enough motorized use that the noise, speed, commotion, trammeled snows, and fumes undermined my experience. Back then it was easy to move off the roads or into forests to escape the machines.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the power of snowmobiles improved, some of my favorite telemark terrain near my home in Western Washington was gradually assimilated by the Borg. Again I moved – either into thicker trees or onto steeper slopes.

Stemilt Basin, Wenatchee Mountains, Washington. Photo by Mike Rolfs.

Over the last fifteen years the pace of loss accelerated as increased horsepower, improved track designs, better suspension, and new riding positions could put sleds on almost any open slope I hoped to ski. Meanwhile, snowbikes with their narrow tracks and maneuverability gave experienced dirt bikers an entirely new opportunity to ride off-trail in winter. Snowbikes can navigate forests, traverse steep slopes, or zig-zag through a jumble of snow-covered boulders with such dexterity that there were precious few places near plowed roads where I can be sure machines won’t disturb the quiet, natural experience I value.

All of this is could change soon due to new rulings supporting old laws. In 1972, The Nixon Administration issued Executive Order 11644 mandating federal agencies to create management plans for all off-highway vehicles. The executive order (EO) required federal land agencies to substantiate that, where permitted, off-highway vehicles would not negatively impact wildlife, erode other forest resources (soil, plants and water), or impact other users. In the earliest years, snow machines primarily traveled the snow-covered roads of the national forest. These were the same roads used by wheeled vehicles in summer, so the Forest Service opted to forego separate management policies for over-snow vehicles (OSVs).

In 2005 the Forest Service started a decade-long process of revamping its management policies for off-highway vehicles. Unfortunately, just as it had done earlier, the agency punted on creating wintertime management policies for OSVs. By now, however, the capability of new snow machines did not confine them to roads and, with no policy, if a machine could get there, it could go there.

The absence of winter policies was clearly inconsistent with the management of off-highway vehicles in other seasons. For years, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA), a Boise based non-profit promoting human-powered winter recreation, prodded the Forest Service to follow the EO and create winter policies for OSVs. The Forest Service steadfastly refused, eventually forcing WWA to sue. In January 2015 Federal Courts ruled the Forest Service was clearly out of compliance and mandated each National Forest to create policies, complete with maps, defining where OSVs could travel.

This is terrific news for we who drink from the chalice of non-motorized winter recreation. Over the next few years each national forest must define corridors and ranges allowing OSV use as well as those areas that are closed to motorized use in winter. With the welfare of wildlife, other forest resources, and other forest users acting as benchmarks to guide the process, there is every reason to be optimistic that more quiet zones, fresh air, and stashes of soft snow will be returning to our national forests.

The bad news is that the Forest Service is an overworked, underfunded agency and some branches of the agency will be truculent — they will do their best to keep kicking the can down the road. Advocacy and involvement will help the cause. In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest surrounding the town where I live today, our local backcountry skiing and snowshoeing club, El Sendero, has begun preparing articles for the media educating our citizenry about what is required of the Forest Service. Next, the club has asked forest administrators to define a time frame for initiating and completing the process.

El Sendero is also scheduling meetings with local snowmobile clubs to discuss designated zones where non-motorized recreationalists and motorized recreationalists can each pursue their passion without impinging upon the other group. These two groups will certainly have areas of disagreement, but by initiating respectful dialog and finding consensus on low- hanging fruit, we hope to avoid snow wars and to help the Forest Service fulfill its obligations.

Pressuring, haggling, deal-making … these are not tasks elevating the pulse of skiers and snowshoers. And yet this is a process non-motorized winter recreationalists should embrace. We have the law behind us, a court decision upholding the law, and guidelines defining the goals of winter policies. This gives us a long lever, a place to stand, and a generational opportunity to reclaim lost ground.

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 is delighted to welcome Melinda Quick as the new Backcountry Film Festival Manager. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Melinda traveled abroad exploring the wildlands of Germany, Italy, South Africa and England – finally landing back in her hometown of Boise, Idaho. Melinda comes from the film festival world having served as Director of Marketing and then Executive Director at the Boise Film Festival over the past four years. With her blended passion for film and wild winter adventure, Melinda is hitting the ground running with this year’s film fest tour. She will be working directly with filmmakers, partners and communities bringing the Backcountry Film Festival to mountain towns across the country. You can reach Melinda Quick at mquick@winterwildlands.org

Cross-country skiing in the Sapphire WSA, Larry Campbell photo

IN A DECISION FILED JUNE 29, 2018, the United States District Court for the District of Montana upheld the 2016 Bitterroot National Forest Travel Plan against a federal lawsuit brought by a coalition of motorized and mountain bike organizations. The plaintiffs had sought to overturn the travel plan’s prohibitions on motorized and mechanized uses within Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and recommended wilderness areas (RWAs), while local and national conservation partners, including Winter Wildlands Alliance, had intervened on behalf of the Forest Service to help defend the travel plan.

The coalition challenging the plan included the Bitterroot Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club, the Ravalli County Off-Road User Association, the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, the Montana Snowmobile Association, Citizens for Balanced Use and Backcountry Sled Patriots.

“They kind of threw the kitchen sink at this to find some toehold to get it struck down,” Earthjustice attorney Josh Purtle, who represented the groups supporting the Forest Service, told The Missoulian. “It didn’t work.”

Standing with the forest service on this were Friends of the Bitterroot, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Missoula Backcountry Horsemen, Montana Wilderness Association, Selway-Pintler Wilderness Backcountry Horsemen, WildEarth Guardians and Winter Wildlands Alliance.

Backcountry skiing on the Bitterroot National Forest, Adam Switalski photo

Back in 2016, Winter Wildlands Alliance applauded the Bitterroot National Forest for publishing a winter travel plan that protected winter wildlands on the forest from inappropriate over-snow vehicle (OSV) use in areas that the forest plan recommends for wilderness. These areas must be managed to protect their wilderness character, and the Forest Service determined that over-snow vehicle use is incompatible with such management.

The Bitterroot’s travel plan also prohibited motorized use in the two WSAs on the forest – the Sapphire and Blue Joint. Although OSVs and other forms of motorized use may be allowed within WSAs, under the Montana Wilderness Study Act, motorized uses are only allowed at the “manner and extent” that those uses existed in 1977, when they were designated by Congress.

After extensive research and analysis, the Bitterroot concluded that OSV use was hardly, if at all, present in those WSAs in 1977. Therefore, to comply with the Montana Wilderness Study Act, and to “maintain wilderness character” in the Sapphire and Blue Joint WSAs, the travel plan prohibited OSV use (and for similar reasons mechanized use as well) within these areas.

The Court last week ruled that the Forest Service’s decisions were not arbitrary and capricious as the plaintiffs had argued, but in fact 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 is important for us, as snowmobiling often leaves no lasting physical imprint but does drastically change the character of an area during the winter. Anybody who has been skiing in the same basin where people are snowmobiling knows that the sounds, smells, and presence of motorized recreation counters the feeling of being in a wilderness environment, even if there are no groomed trails or other infrastructure.

Pausing to take in the Bitterroots.

Recognizing the complexity of the forest’s mandate to “maintain wilderness character,” and its authority to limit uses, the judge cited analysis conducted in the Blue Joint area from 1977-2009 showing that “snowmobile use grew more than four-fold, off-highway-vehicle use grew nine-fold, and bicycle use went from non-existent to common use.”

“The wilderness-quality lands the Travel Plan protects are important to people from all walks of life in the Bitterroot valley, including hunters, fishermen, horsepackers, hikers, and skiers,” said Purtle. “The court’s decision ensures that these special places will continue to support elk and other wildlife and provide Montanans with outstanding opportunities for solitude and quiet recreation for years to come.”

Mountain Bikes in WSAs up for more Public Comment

The Court did order the Forest Service to conduct an additional round of public comment concerning the trails closed to mountain bikes in the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs.  However, the Court did not order the Forest Service to conduct an additional analysis or modify the travel plan in response to the public comment period.

Many skiers, all of the WWA staff included, ride mountain bikes when the snow melts. We know that defending the Bitterroot travel plan has raised a few eyebrows and cost us a few friends. However, the Wilderness Act prohibits mountain biking as well as snowmobiling, and it would be disingenuous to argue that one non-conforming use is incompatible with wilderness character while turning a blind eye to another just because the other is human-powered. In the hierarchy of Forest Service planning, travel plans tier to forest plans and the forest plan is the document that lays out the areas that will be managed to protect wilderness character and the areas where other uses, like mountain biking and snowmobiling, may be appropriate.

The Bitterroot Forest Plan is 30 years old and conditions have changed over the past 3 decades. It may be time to re-assess which areas of the forest should be recommended for wilderness and managed to protect wilderness character. However, forest plan revision, not travel planning, is the time to make those decisions. We look forward to working with all of our partners during the forest plan revision, which will hopefully start soon.

Likewise, we believe it’s time for a state-wide conversation about the future of Montana’s WSA’s. There’s no doubt that some of the areas within WSAs in Montana should be designated as Wilderness, and there’s no doubt that other areas within these WSAs should be released and open to activities like mountain biking and snowmobiling. However, until those conversations happen and Congress takes action on the WSAs, the Forest Service must follow existing law and their forest plan. That’s what the Bitterroot has done and we applaud them for it.

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.