President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. 

With summer solstice in the rearview mirror, it’s time to start looking forward to the coming winter! Just kidding. Here at Winter Wildlands we love summer too! Earlier this month our staff gathered for a staff retreat at City of Rocks to camp, talk shop, and climb rocks. We are excitedly planning our 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference and Wild Weekend, all of which will be in Boise this October. Save the date for October 24-27, 2019!

This month on the policy front:

  • Washington D.C. — We’ve been keeping track of a number of good bills that are making their way through Congress. Some of the ones we’re supportive of include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2019, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act. There are many others too — we’ll continue to keep the Bill Tracker page on our website up-to-date, so check it out for the full list.
  • Forest Service planning and environmental assessment – On June 13th the Forest Service published proposed changes to its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. According to the Federal Register notice, the Forest Service is proposing to change its NEPA regulations to increase efficiency in its environmental analysis. While we definitely agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient when it comes to NEPA, we’re wary of much of what they’re proposing here. Many of the proposed changes appear to be aimed at reducing public input in public lands management and expediting logging and road building. Comments on the proposed changes are due August 12. We’re still analyzing what the Forest Service has proposed, so stay tuned!
  • Winter travel planning – in late May we participated in an objection resolution meeting for the Tahoe winter travel plan. Over the weeks following that meeting, we’ve been encouraged  The Stanislaus will be hosting a similar meeting in early August. And, we’re hoping to (finally) see a final winter travel plan on the Lassen National Forest this summer! Winter travel planning on the Shoshone is on hold while they hire a new Environmental Coordinator.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying the long days of summer and finding time to get out on our public lands!

Hilary Eisen
Policy Director

Shana Maziarz crosses the Hulahula River to start a long day of earning turns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brennan Lagasse

IT’S BEEN A COUPLE OF MONTHS since the last Winter Wildlands Alliance policy update, not because there’s nothing to talk about, but because I ducked out of the office this spring to track wolverines in Mongolia. While in Mongolia, I ran into some unexpected challenges that illustrated how climate change is impacting wild snowscapes across the globe. It reminded me that, as backcountry skiers, our adventures take us to the world’s wildest places and we’re often among the first to see them change. As credible witnesses to the impacts of a changing climate on our mountains and snowscapes, backcountry skiers are in a unique position to speak up.

This is why, earlier this month, with our Outdoor Alliance partners, we submitted a range of testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Forests, Parks, and Public Lands for a hearing on the impacts of climate change on public lands recreation (scroll down to see the letter we submitted). Testimony included front-lines accounts from Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassadors Caroline Gleich (writing from Mount Everest), Luc Mehl (from Alaska), Brennan Lagasse (recently returned to Lake Tahoe from the Arctic) and Clare Gallagher (from Colorado), as well as our friend Ben Hatchett, a climate researcher in Northern California/Nevada.

You can share your own experiences with lawmakers and urge them into action by joining the Adventurers for Climate Action campaign today!

Meanwhile, we’ve been staying busy this spring with ongoing winter travel planning and OSV use designation in California, among other things. Over the past couple of months, we filed an objection to the Stanislaus winter travel plan and participated in objection resolution meetings related to the Eldorado and Tahoe winter travel plans. Each of these plans has many positive elements, but through the objection process we hope to improve a few key shortcomings and help the Forest Service develop solid winter travel plans for the central and northern Sierra. We had similar objections to all three draft plans: we’re concerned about the designation of some high-value backcountry ski zones (and designated near-natural areas) for open snowmobile use, the failure to protect the non-motorized character and experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the failure to adequately address the Forest Service’s legal obligation to minimize over-snow vehicle impacts on natural resources and wildlife and on non-motorized activities.

Meanwhile, in Montana, forest planning on the Custer Gallatin is in full-swing. The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the revised forest plan in early March. The comment period ends June 6. There are few places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin. Through work in a variety of coalitions, we’re advocating for a vision for the forest that balances conservation, recreation, and wildlife values. Find out more and submit a comment online here.

In other policy news, the state of Utah has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to exempt Utah from the Roadless Rule, which rule happens to protect the majority of backcountry ski terrain in Utah. We’re working with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, and our partners in Utah’s conservation community to push back against this attack on the Roadless Rule. You can help out by sending a letter to USDA Secretary Perdue and Under Secretary Hubbard using Outdoor Alliance’s online form. Perdue and Hubbard have been feeling the heat and haven’t responded to Utah’s petition, yet. Help us keep the pressure on.

Finally, I want to bring your attention to Minnesota, where the Trump Administration recently renewed federal leases for a sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are an amazing place to visit in winter, providing endless opportunities to cross-country ski, showshoe, and winter camp in one of the quietest places in the country. This week, Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum introduced legislation compelling the U.S. Forest Service to complete a study on toxic mining near the Boundary Waters and halt mineral leasing in the watershed of the Boundary Waters until the study is complete. Our partners at Save the Boundary Waters are leading the charge to protect this special place, and you can get involved here.

We’ve updated the Bill Tracker page on our website if you’re interested in seeing what other legislation we’re supporting, and tracking, on the Hill this year. There are a number of good bills, including bipartisan legislation to establish full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, a House bill to protect the Arctic Refuge, and legislation to codify the Roadless Rule and put an end to state-by-state exemptions from the Rule.

That’s all for now!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director


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Making tracks in Yellowstone National Park, photo by Hilary Eisen

Although it’s been pretty cold across the Snowbelt lately, things have been hot on the public lands front! Especially in D.C., where Congress just passed the biggest public lands bill in a decade. On Tuesday, February 26, the House passed the public lands package (S47, the Natural Resources Management Act) by a vote of 363-62. Two weeks earlier the Senate passed the same bill 92-8. Now the bill heads to the President’s desk, where we expect he will sign it into law.

The public lands package permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protects backcountry ski terrain in the Methow Headwaters (WA) and near Yellowstone National Park (in MT) from industrial-scale mining, and designates 1.3 million acres of new Wilderness, among many other public land protections. This bill was the culmination of years of hard work by the outdoor recreation and conservation community and we’re super excited that it has passed. You can send a message thanking Congress for passing the public lands package using this form. We’d love to see this Congress continue to support – and fund – public lands, so it’s important to thank them for the good work they’ve done so far.

Outside the Beltway, the big thing we’ve been working on this month has been to review the Tahoe National Forest’s draft winter travel plan. The Tahoe published a final EIS and draft Record of Decision on February 8. Overall they’ve done a pretty good job – despite a highly contentious planning process, the Tahoe has produced a draft plan that clearly aims to meet the interests of all stakeholders while also protecting natural resources and complying with the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. The draft plan protects most of the priority ski zones that we’ve advocated for and their analysis is the most robust that we’ve seen to date (they considered a wide range of alternatives, including a couple that were very conservation-focused). However, we’d still like to see some protection for non-motorized use in a couple of high-profile spots on the forest, we’re not thrilled that they’re proposing to allow OSV use adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail (a Congressionally designated non-motorized trail), and we’re disappointed that they’ve reversed course on using minimum snow depth as a management tool to protect soils and vegetation from over-snow vehicle impacts. Objections are due March 22.

In other news, this week marks the first full week in over 14 years where Mark Menlove has not been at the helm of Winter Wildlands Alliance. We’re excited to see what he accomplishes in his new role as Idaho State Director for The Nature Conservancy, and we’re actively searching for a new Executive Director. The application deadline for this position closed on March 6, 2019.

That’s all for now – February is a short month so it’s a short policy update!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director

Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers lobby U.S. Forest Service to adopt shared-use plan for the Lookout Pass backcountry area (Spokesman-Review)

The longest-ever government shutdown ended late last week. During the shutdown all of the land management and travel planning that we work on was on hold, as most Forest Service and Park Service employees were furloughed. Despite the shutdown, however, the Department of Interior continued to move ahead with changing how they respond to Freedom of Information Act Requests (comments due January 28) and permitting drilling in the Arctic Refuge (comments due February 11). We are working with our Outdoor Alliance partners to comment on both of these DOI actions.

Last week we published a blog post detailing some of the impacts that the government shutdown is having on public lands and winter recreation. We expect that as the government re-opens all of the planning processes that are on-going will pick up where they left off. Time-sensitive scientific research, however, may have to be postponed until next year or cancelled altogether. For example, NASA announced last week that it would be postponing its SnowEx campaign until 2020. Not only is this a lost opportunity for SnowSchool students who would have assisted with data collection this winter, it is a setback to gathering valuable information about Western snowpack.

We also expect that things won’t be back to normal right away even with the government re-opened. For example, it will take time to re-open roads and trailheads that have not been plowed for weeks (like in Rainer National Park). The shutdown will have longer-term implications as well. This is the time of year when the Forest Service and other agencies hire their summer crews and apply for grants to fund recreation programs. Not being able to work for most of January has put the Forest Service, Park Service, and BLM behind in their summer hiring and it’s possible that not all offices will be fully staffed for summer. Likewise, if grant deadlines passed during the shutdown or agency staff don’t have time to get a grant in between when they’re back at work and the grant deadline, they won’t have the funding needed run recreation programs.

Although planning was on hold for most of January, comment deadlines weren’t delayed because of the shutdown. Comments on the Plumas National Forest’s winter travel plan draft EIS were due on January 24th and we worked with our California partners to make sure Plumas skiers got their comments in. David travelled to Quincy, CA for a couple of great outreach events put on by Friends of Plumas Wilderness (including screenings of Jeremy Jones’ Ode to Muir and the Backcountry Film Festival) to help rally skiers to comment on the Plumas travel plan.

Also this month, I travelled to Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border to participate in a collaborative meeting with the Stevens Peak Backcountry Coalition (which includes several groups, such as the Spokane Mountaineers and Montana Backcountry Alliance), snowmobile clubs from the Montana and Idaho sides of Lookout Pass, and the Lookout Pass ski area. At stake is a high-value winter recreation zone and backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, and the ski resort are working together to find agreement on how to share and manage the area.

Finally, we were excited to see our newest grassroots group, Teton Backcountry Alliance host a fun and well-attended event aimed at raising awareness around access to Teton Pass. Teton Pass is an extremely popular backcountry ski zone, but access is not guaranteed if skier activity threatens the safety of people driving on the road.

This week the entire Winter Wildlands Alliance crew is headed to the winter Outdoor Retailer show. If you’re in Denver, come find us at the show or join us for the Night of Stoke, featuring an exclusive lineup of films from the Backcountry Film Festival (and beyond) and presentations from featured outdoor adventurers, athletes, and activists about how to turn passion into action.

 

 

 

 

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director

Senators Daines (R-MT) and Gardner (R-CO) champion #bipartisan effort to reauthorize LWCF, America’s favorite conversation program.

Winter Wildlands Alliance policy staff has been in Washington D.C. this past week for our annual Outdoor Alliance policy summit, as well as to check in with Federal land management agencies and meet with members of Congress. Congress is still limping through its lame-duck session, and it’s our last chance to make a case for legislation we’d like to see included in a possible last-ditch, year-end public lands package, and to get some important bills passed into law before having to start over with the new Congress next year.

With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

As many bad bills as there are in Congress these days (and there are plenty!), there are some good ones too. One of our top priorities has been to bring back the Land and Water Conservation Fund (#SaveLWCF). Congress let this program expire in September despite the fact that it’s America’s most popular conservation program, with broad bi-partisan support, and a critical source of funding for public land acquisition and recreation infrastructure. We’re still getting mixed beta from Senate offices and members of Congress about whether it’ll get re-authorized — either permanently or temporarily — and at what level, but we’re staying optimistic in these final days of the session.

Which brings me to the primary topic of this policy update – what will the midterm election results and a new Congress in 2019 mean for backcountry skiers who love public lands?

As you will have heard by now, Democrats won enough House races to take back control of the House of Representatives next year, while Republicans maintained control of the Senate. For the past two years, all three branches of government have been controlled by one party, but starting in January we’ll return to a divided government. In the House, the Democrats will control the agenda, forcing both the White House and Republican-controlled Senate to negotiate with them. Given our partisan politics, we expect there will be a lot of vilifying going on too, with each party continuing to focus on blaming the other for the nation’s woes. So, what do we think this means for public lands?

  • Legislation: We expect the scariest legislative threats – such as large-scale public lands transfers and attempts to gut environmental laws – to fade. These attacks on public lands and the public process have been driven by House Republicans and now they don’t have the votes to move these extreme proposals. At the same time, with a hyper-partisan divided Congress, we’re not sure that Congress will get much done in the legislative arena at all.
  • Investigations: With Democrats taking control of the House, we’re expecting a lot of investigations into the conduct and decision-making of Trump Administration officials. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is likely to be on the hot seat as Legislators look into his decisions to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, among other controversial actions of the past two years.
  • Confirmations:The Republicans have strengthened their majority in the Senate, which will likely make it easier for the President to get the 60 votes needed to confirm his nominees, from the Courts to the Cabinet. Many federal appointments are currently vacant and the rumor mill is churning with word that Secretary Zinke is on his way out. Although Zinke has been a huge disappointment for public lands enthusiasts, we’re not optimistic about who his replacement might be. In fact, there are some frightening nominees waiting in the wings to take positions across the federal public lands agencies. It’s no secret that the Trump Administration and Senate Republicans are highly motivated to change the federal judiciary by confirming as many conservative judges as possible. This will have a delayed, but major, effect on environmental and administrative law, with conservative judges likely giving less deference to land management agencies in how they interpret the laws that govern public lands management.
  • Pressure on the Agencies: It’s not unusual to see members of Congress putting pressure on the Forest Service or other land management agencies. Most recently, we saw members of the Congressional Western Caucus weighing in on winter travel planning in California and asking the Forest Service to re-evaluate any potential restrictions on snowmobile use and even to reconsider the planning process itself. With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

We’ll see how these predictions play out in the coming year. For the next week or so, we’ll remain focused on the lame duck session, with fingers crossed that we can get a few things across the finish line in the next couple of weeks!

 

 

 

 

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director