Comments are now closed on the Eldorado NF winter travel plan.

The Eldorado National Forest failed to seriously consider and analyze any significant further restrictions on OSV use and actually proposed to open many popular and historic cross-country and backcountry ski zones to motorized use, over the concerns of skiers who value solitude and quiet winter wildlands.

The forest’s Proposed Action (Alternative 2) failed in a number of ways to comply with NEPA and the 2015 OSV Rule. It also proposed reversing historic protections and opens many important and longstanding non-motorized areas to snowmobiles, including Anderson Ridge, numerous traditionally non-motorized areas accessed from the Carson Pass corridor, the historic Van Vleck closure, and the area around the Ludlow Hut. Alternative 4 was even worse, proposing to allow snowmobiles in the Loon Lake winter recreation area, in the Caples Creek recommended wilderness area, in several semi-primitive non-motorized areas, and in the Round Top Biological/Geological Special Interest Area!

We suggested that the forest go back to the drawing board, as the Lassen had to do, to come up with a revised or supplemental DEIS with a broader range of alternatives. Short of that, we advocated for Alternative 3 as the only alternative that presented a clear-eyed vision for winter travel management that recognizes historically non-motorized areas, focuses OSV designations in zones where OSV use actually occurs, minimizes user conflict and acknowledges that not all parts of the forest receive sufficient snow for OSV recreation.

Click here for our full summary and analysis, maps and organizational comment letter.

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.

Last year, after exhausting all other avenues, we filed a lawsuit challenging over-snow vehicle use maps on 3 National Forests – the Boise, Payette, and Bridger-Teton. Today, we’re pleased to report that we’ve dismissed the challenge because the Forest Service recognized that these maps don’t comply with the OSV Rule and withdrew them.

Winter travel planning is a big deal for Winter Wildlands Alliance. The Over-Snow Vehicle Rule is a hard-won regulation that came about after a decade of advocacy work and we’re committed to seeing it properly implemented. This means that the majority of National Forests that get snow will need to go through winter travel planning. Any forest that wants to roll existing designations into an official winter travel plan — through a so-called “grandfathering provision” — can only do so if they can show that those designations comply with the OSV Rule.

The grandfathering of existing designations is a bit tricky, and could possibly be interpreted as a loophole big enough to drive a snowcat through. The provision isn’t meant to allow forests to codify the status quo and call it good. It’s intended to help make winter travel planning efficient by allowing decisions that already comply with the OSV Rule to be rolled into new plans.

However, faced with a shortage of resources and a desire not to stir up conflict, some forests have been tempted to circumvent winter travel planning by publishing over-snow vehicle use maps (OSVUMs) based on current management, regardless of whether or not that management complies with the OSV Rule. Publishing an OSVUM is the final step in winter travel planning, so once a forest publishes one of these maps they’re essentially closing the door on the opportunity to revisit OSV use designations or do any further planning.

Codifying the status quo without actually doing anything makes all of our past efforts to establish a protocol, process and requirements for winter travel planning moot. Which is why, when the Payette, Boise, and Bridger-Teton published OSVUMs based on outdated decisions that don’t comply with the OSV Rule, we realized we’d have to sue if we wanted to keep OSV Rule implementation on track. We don’t take litigation lightly, and prior to filing a lawsuit we approached each forest and made a case for why they should withdraw their maps and commit to doing winter travel planning instead. But they weren’t having it. So, in September 2017, we sued.

A few months ago we received notice from each forest that they’ve withdrawn their OSVUMs and will conduct winter travel planning when resources allow. Because the case is now moot, we’ve withdrawn the lawsuit. Onward and upward.

Now it’s time to talk about what comes next. The Bridger-Teton is about to embark on a forest plan revision, which is a perfect opportunity to set the stage for winter travel planning. Once the forest plan revision is completed (a process that usually takes around 5 years), we’d like to see the Bridger-Teton roll right into winter travel planning. From forest planning through travel planning, we’ll be advocating for backcountry skiers and wildland and wildlife conservation and we’re excited to help the Bridger-Teton revamp it’s management to reflect current conditions, opportunities, and challenges on the forest.

Meanwhile, over in Idaho, the time is ripe right now for the Boise and Payette to start working on winter travel plans. We understand that winter travel planning isn’t easy, but there are ways to ease the process. Right now would be a great time for these forests to convene collaboratives, or work with existing ones, to start thinking about winter travel planning and coming up with ideas and agreements that could inform the planning process and make it less resource-intensive.

Winter travel planning doesn’t have to start with the NEPA process, and now that we’re all in agreement that these forests need to do winter travel planning, we should be able to move forward with figuring out winter travel management plans that balance motorized and non-motorized snowsports and protect wildlife habitat and winter wildlands.

Related Media:

2018 07 12 Legal Challenge Holds the Line on Winter Motorized Travel

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.

Photo by Ming Poon

TODAY — May 29, 2018 — IS THE LAST DAY TO COMMENT on the Tahoe National Forest’s Draft Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Plan. Whether you’re a backcountry skier, splitboarder, Nordic skier, snowshoer, snowmobiler, timber sledder, snow scientist, dog musher, fat biker, e-biker, snowman builder, snowball fighter, ice climber, ice fisher, ice skater, winter through-hiker, lifelong local, weekend visitor, business owner, environmentalist, capitalist, philosopher, curmudgeon, or — like many of us — some combination of all these things, it’s important that the forest service hears from you about how winter recreation can be improved and sustained on our public lands, not just for some users but for ALL.

1) Good planning makes for a better future.

The forest service has never before been compelled to go through a comprehensive process to analyze and designate, with public input, where snowmobiles and other motorized over-snow vehicles (OSVs) are and are not allowed to travel — until now. The Tahoe is the second national forest in the nation (after the Lassen, also in California) to take a good hard look at how winter recreation might best be managed for the next 20-30 years.

Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.

— Gifford Pinchot, founding Chief of the United States Forest Service

We hear from some folks that things are just fine the way they are. Others feel squeezed out of some of their favorite places, or fear being squeezed out in the future.

Either way, given the complex pressures of population growth, climate change and new technologies, with ever more users getting out on public lands in different ways and in ever less predictable winters, we believe that good, balanced, forward-thinking winter management planning is essential. We believe the forest can provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources well into the future.

2) Separation minimizes conflict.

For a host of reasons, so-called “shared use” greatly favors the folks on machines over those traveling on foot. We believe that creating separate, discrete zones for motorized and non-motorized activities with reasonable, appropriate access for each is smart management, minimizes the potential for conflict, and makes the winter experience better for all users. Preserving and protecting a variety of recreational experiences — motorized and non-motorized — is good for stakeholders and also good for the local economy.

3) The status quo is out of balance.

One argument we hear from the motorized community is that “85% of the forest is already closed” to motorized winter travel and that skiers “already have ALL the wilderness.” In fact, nearly 3/4 of the forest is currently open to over-snow vehicle travel and only 2% is designated Wilderness:

  • Tahoe NF total area: 871,495 acres (100%)
  • Area currently open to OSV travel: 636,002 acres (73%)
  • Granite Chief Wilderness (the only designated Wilderness on the Tahoe NF): 19,048 acres (2%)

We don’t think of this as a zero-sum game. Nearly one quarter (199,565 acres, or 23%) of the forest lies below 4500 feet, where snowfall is generally inadequate for skiing or snowmobiling. Elsewhere, many of the same prime winter recreation areas are coveted by both motorized and non-motorized users. We believe compromises can and should be struck to allow both groups fair and adequate access. This process is our chance to restore balance to the landscape and to improve the winter recreation experience for everybody.

4) Public input is essential for public lands.

Whether you live in Truckee or San Francisco, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque, helping this national forest draft a quality winter travel plan is YOUR opportunity to help protect high-value winter experiences on public lands you care about across the country.

CLICK HERE FOR OUR QUICK AND EASY COMMENT TOOL.