Prime backcountry and Nordic ski zones are at stake in the Tahoe National Forest’s latest draft winter travel plan. Now is our chance to make sure these areas get the protections they deserve. Public comments due by MAY 29. Use our easy online form to personalize and submit your comments today.

Human-powered on the Tahoe National Forest
Photo by Ming Poon

 

1. Winter Travel Plans Moving Forward

April brought the long-anticipated release of the Lassen National Forest’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and draft Record of Decision (ROD) for its winter travel plan, and also the publication of the Tahoe National Forest’s draft plan. The Lassen was the first national forest in the country to start winter travel planning under the 2015 OSV Rule. It’s been a long, bumpy road, but now the end is in sight.

The plan is far from perfect, but we’re generally ready to live with it. There are a few things we’d still like to achieve, and we’re working with Snowlands Network to file some specific objections. Our biggest points of contention are: (1) that the Forest chose to designate a couple of high-value quiet recreation areas for OSV use without very convincing rationale; and (2) we don’t agree with how they’re proposing to allow OSV use in areas near the Pacific Crest Trail. That said, we’re glad to see that the plan sets a minimum snow depth, protects important wildlife habitat and many of the non-motorized recreation areas we’ve advocated for, and generally focuses OSV use in places that actually get snow and provide winter recreation opportunities. Click here for a more detailed summary.

The Tahoe’s draft EIS is now out for public comment. We’ve posted some preliminary information, links to documents and a mapping tool on our website, and are working with our partners and grassroots groups to finalize our organizational comments. We hope to publish our online comment tool next week. In contrast to the Lassen plan, we’re very pleased with the level of analysis on this one. It’s clear that the line officers and planners on the Tahoe have a much better understanding of the landscape and of human-powered winter recreation.

Also in California, we’re expecting to see a draft EIS for the Eldorado National Forest winter travel plan any day. All updates regarding winter travel planning in the Sierra will be posted here. Elsewhere, we’re also expecting a draft EIS from the 10 Lakes region of the Kootenai (in Montana) this spring, and a draft EIS from the Shoshone in September. And scoping for winter travel planning is supposed to start soon on the north zone of the Idaho-Panhandle. Stay tuned!

2. Rallying for Skiers and Snowshoers in the Eastern Cascades

Our grassroots group in Wenatchee, WA — El Sendero Ski and Snowshoe Club — has been working for years to establish a non-motorized winter recreation area on state lands. They’ve worked through a state-level public process and a local collaborative planning process to develop the non-motorized area proposal. Through all of this, El Sendero has worked with the local snowmobile club to get their support, but now the whole effort is threatened to be derailed by a small number of snowmobilers who are opposed to any sort of non-motorized designation. El Sendero has put out the call for help to rally support for this non-motorized area. We’ve created a super simple comment form, so if you could take two minutes to send in a letter to Chelan County that would be awesome. Thanks!!!

3. …And some rare good news from D.C.:

Late last year the Interior Department floated a proposal to drastically raise entrance fees at a number of popular National Parks. Interior’s proposal would have more than doubled the fee to visit 117 Parks, to $70 for some! This proposal generated massive public backlash (WWA’s alert had a higher response rate than any alert we’ve ever sent out). Over 90% of those who commented were opposed to a fee increase and many called out Secretary Zinke for slashing the Park Service budget at the same time he was calling for raising fees to address the Park Service maintenance backlog.

We’re happy to report that Interior seems to have listened to the thousands of people who commented on the fee hike proposal and announced that they are going with a very modest fee increase of $5. Outdoor Alliance put out a good blog post on this, and I encourage you to check it out. You can also click here to see what it will cost to visit your favorite parks this summer.

Oh and last but not least, one of the bills we’re big supporters of, Recreation Not Red Tape, passed out of its House committee, narrowly escaping being gutted by a last-minute amendment from Representative Cheney (WY). The outdoor recreation community came out in force to keep the bill intact, and our voices made a difference.

APRIL 2018 — With this month’s publication of a final environmental impact statement (FEIS), the Lassen National Forest, the first forest in the country to write a complete winter travel plan under the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule, is almost done with winter travel planning. We have one more opportunity to tweak the plan, through the objection process, and then the plan will be finalized.

ACTION ALERT: The Tahoe National Forest’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was published on April 13, 2018, initiating a 45-day public comment period to end on May 25, 2018.

CLICK HERE FOR MAPS, LINKS AND ANALYSIS.

Overall, we feel that the Lassen did a decent job. It’s not the exact plan we would have written had we been in charge, but with a couple of exceptions (see below) the majority of important non-motorized recreation areas, winter wildlands, and important wildlife winter habitat areas are protected.

The draft plan designates 6 areas for OSV use, totaling 762,920 acres (or 66 percent) of the forest. It also designates 380 miles of National Forest System snow trails within the Lassen National Forest. This does not include the many more hundreds of miles of ungroomed OSV trails that are within designated open areas. OSV use is prohibited outside of the designated areas.

Important Non-Motorized Areas Protected

Lassen NF Selected Alternative: Areas and Trails to be Designated for Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Use

In the draft plan, approximately 387,100 acres of the forest are not open to OSV use, which nearly doubles the amount of non-motorized protection under current management. Most of the areas Winter Wildlands Alliance and Snowlands Network specifically identified as important for non-motorized recreation are not designated for OSV use in this draft plan, including Colby Mountain, Eagle Lake, and areas around the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail and Hog Flat reservoir.

McGowan National Recreation Trail, Butte Lake, and Lake Almanor Trail Still Need Protection

We are disappointed that the draft plan designates both the Butte Lake and Lake Almanor areas for OSV use and doesn’t fully recognize the McGowan National Recreation Trail. These are places where we have advocated for quiet recreation. The Butte Lake area also contains important wildlife habitat. We still feel that the Forest Service can protect the quiet recreation and wildlife habitat values in these two places while addressing the OSV community’s access concerns, and we will be filing an objection to advocate for these protections.

The McGowan National Recreation Trail was designated as a non-motorized cross-country ski trail in 1981. However, the draft plan designates the western portion of the trail, and the area around it, for OSV use. We believe this is a misunderstanding, and are working to ensure that the McGowan National Recreation Trail remains a non-motorized cross-country ski trail.

In the Butte Lake area, the motorized community has expressed a desire to ride on a couple of specific trails but they do not travel far off trail. We have previously suggested that the Forest Service not allow cross-country OSV use in Butte Lake but rather designate trails within the suggested non-motorized area to allow OSV travel and connectivity between open areas.

Likewise, we have advocated for a non-motorized area on the southwest shore of Lake Almanor because skiers use the Lake Almanor Recreation Trail in winter. It has come to our attention that the non-motorized area we have advocated for might block access between a designated OSV area and a commonly used parking area. Rather than allow OSV use along the entire southwest shore of the lake, including on the ski trail (as stated in the draft plan), we feel a more balanced solution would be to allow OSV use where necessary and reasonable to allow users to get from the parking area to the Jonesville OSV area, while keeping the area around Lake Almanor Recreation Trail non-motorized.

Draft Plan Fails the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is a National Scenic Trail and Congress has mandated that the trail be non-motorized. The Lassen’s draft winter travel plan, however, would manage the Pacific Crest Trail as non-motorized in name only during the winter. Under the draft plan, OSV use would be allowed right up to the very edge of the trail for much of its length through the Lassen National Forest, although OSVs would technically only be allowed to cross the trail at 17 designated crossing points.

We don’t see how the Forest Service will enforce these designated crossing points and we don’t believe this management complies with the letter or spirit of the Pacific Crest Trail Comprehensive Plan. Several of the Alternatives that the Forest Service analyzed included a 500-foot non-motorized buffer around the Pacific Crest Trail, with designated trails and crossing points to ensure OSV connectivity across the trail. The Forest Service’s own analysis supports the need for a non-motorized buffer in order to comply with the PCT Comprehensive Plan and we agree.

Wildlife Habitat Better Protected

The draft plan does far more to protect wildlife habitat on the Lassen than either the current management or the previous (2017) draft plan. It protects winter deer habitat around Cinder Butte and Child’s Meadow and in low elevation areas like Fall River and Shasta by not designating these areas for OSV use. Likewise, the draft plan protects yellow-legged frog habitat in the Butt Mountain and Cub Creek areas, and in Child’s Meadow. However, the plan does little to address the Lassen’s rarest forest carnivore – the Sierra Nevada red fox.

This picture of a Sierra Nevada red fox in December 2014 was the first confirmed detection in Yosemite in nearly a century. Two were captured near the Lassen NF this past winter. NPS photo.

There are estimated to be only 63 Sierra Nevada red fox in the Cascade population, (which is one of only two populations world-wide and includes animals ranging from the Lassen to Mt. Hood). In the FEIS the Forest Service states that little is known about how OSVs impact fox and therefore assumes the impact to be benign. As a result, the Forest Service decided that this species is not a significant concern in terms of OSV management. It’s true that little is known about how OSV use impacts Sierra Nevada red fox but researchers captured and collared two Sierra Nevada red fox on the Lassen this past winter with the intent of learning more about the species. We believe that the Forest Service should error on the side of caution and be conservative in protecting red fox habitat until we learn more about how OSV use does, or does not, impact the species.

Minimum Snow Depth Will Help Protect Soils and Vegetation

In the draft plan, cross-country OSV use is not allowed unless there is at least 12 inches of snow on the ground, as measured and reported by the Forest Service. This 12-inch minimum snow depth will help to protect vegetation and guard against soil compaction. Unlike in previous versions of this plan, the current draft plan includes specific plans for how the Forest Service will measure snow depth and notify the public about when minimum snow depths are met and OSV areas are open.

A meaningful minimum snow depth is an important tool for minimizing OSV impacts on natural resources and we’re pleased to see this incorporated into the draft plan. However, we are concerned that the draft plan allows OSV use on trails when there is just 6 inches of snow. As the Forest Service’s analysis describes, 6 inches is insufficient to protect vegetation and soils and we aren’t confident that OSV users will stick to the designated routes when there is less than 12 inches of snow on the ground. We are concerned that the 6-inch exception for trails will undermine the broader 12-inch minimum snow depth.

A Step Forward for Balance and Quiet Recreation

We’ve been working on winter travel planning on the Lassen National Forest since 2015. Back then, the Forest Service didn’t really understand how to do winter travel planning in accordance with the new Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. At the same time, the ski community wasn’t super engaged in the process. At the first public meeting the Forest Service hosted, back in 2015, there were only two skiers in the room. A WWA staffer and a Snowlands board member. At the last public meeting the Forest Service hosted the number of skiers and snowmobilers present was roughly equal. Hundreds of skiers submitted public comments on the draft EIS in November 2017.

The Forest Service has shifted course on how they approach winter travel planning, which has resulted in a much better plan than the one we objected to last year. These are important gains that we will build off of as we move forward with winter travel planning elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada and across the country.

We’re officially into spring now, and as much as we at Winter Wildlands Alliance love coldsmoke powder days, there’s nothing quite like Nordic crust cruising or skiing steep corn in the sunshine. The days are getting longer and the season for long distance tours is upon us. Happy Spring!

March has been filled with meetings and travel for Winter Wildlands Alliance staff and we’ve been busy working on all fronts of public lands advocacy — and seen some encouraging successes (good news at the end of this post)!

Talkin’ winter rec policy at the Sangree Hut.

Forest and Travel Planning

During the first few days of March our policy director, Hilary, drove down to Leadville, CO for the annual Backcountry Snowsports Initiative (BSI) hut trip. Originally called the Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, one of the three founding organizations that created Winter Wildlands Alliance, it’s now a program within the Colorado Mountain Club. BSI unites winter organizations and enthusiasts in Colorado. Each year BSI brings land managers, hut owners, and backcountry advocates to the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s Sangree Hut to discuss advocacy issues that affect winter recreation. It’s always a great opportunity to connect with our Colorado partners.

On the way to Leadville, Hilary stopped in Red Lodge, MT to meet with the local district ranger and discuss the comments we recently submitted for the Custer Gallatin forest plan revision. Stopping in Red Lodge also gave her the chance to attend a Backcountry Film Festival screening, hosted by our local grassroots group Beartooth Recreational Trails Association. They had a packed house and an awesome raffle!

And on the way home to Montana from Colorado Hilary stopped in Cody, WY to meet with the Shoshone National Forest. The Shoshone is the one forest outside of California that is currently working on a forest-wide winter travel plan, and they have a new forest supervisor and a new planning lead. It was great to have the opportunity to meet with the new staff, educate them about human-powered winter recreation on the Shoshone, and fill them in on what we’ve been advocating for in the travel planning process. It sounds like we’ll be seeing a draft EIS for the Shoshone plan in June.

Spring snow at the edge of the Tahoe National Forest

We’re expecting a draft EIS for the Tahoe winter travel plan and a final EIS for the Lassen winter travel plan any day now (by April 1, we’re told), with a draft EIS for the Eldorado NF plan shortly after. When those drop we’ll get the word out and analyze them as quickly as possible. Stay tuned to our channels or sign up to be part of our California Action Team to help us ensure that these forests have in place balanced winter management plans that provide quality recreation opportunities for both non-motorized and motorized winter recreation, minimizing conflict between users and impacts to wildlife and resources.

Forest Service Policy and Partnerships

The Forest Service is currently re-evaluating how they approach the NEPA process and they’ve been holding meetings in each Region to solicit advice on what to do. We attended the Region One and Region Five Environmental Analysis and Decision Making roundtables. Attending the Roundtables was a good opportunity to make our suggestions and concerns heard. There was also a public comment period recently on the “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” (we had a blog post about it a couple of months ago and worked with Outdoor Alliance to submit this comment letter). All of this is in part to comply with President Trump’s goal of streamlining environmental analyses and eliminating “unnecessary” regulatory burdens. We’re pretty leery of the reasons behind this effort, but do agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient in their approach to NEPA.

Also this month, our advocacy director, David, traveled to Sacramento, CA to attend the Forest Service’s Region 5 quarterly regional leadership team meeting and to serve on a panel about recreation access on public lands, alongside the Blue Ribbon Coalition, the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition and Youth Outside. He also updated the roomful of forest supervisors on the mixed results of a last-minute stakeholder collaborative convened on the Lassen National Forest winter travel plan. Despite those shortcomings, there was general consensus across the panel that improving agency partnerships with organizations and communities and engaging in better collaborative planning and management will be the way forward.

With the Conservation Alliance in D.C.

Congress

Our Executive Director, Mark, was in D.C. earlier this month with the Conservation Alliance. In addition to educating the full Conservation Alliance delegation on winter travel planning and other issues important to the backcountry community during the Conservation Policy Training day, Mark joined member company representatives from the Rocky Mountain region to meet with Congressional offices from Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho. The group conveyed our support and thanks for specific efforts such as the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and Recreation not Red Tape Act as well as overarching efforts including full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, while voicing strong concern with two bills that would release Wilderness Study Areas in Montana and another two that would codify the Trump Administration’s recent rollbacks of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.

As always, you can stay up-to-date on legislation we’re tracking by checking in on the bill tracker page on our website!

The Tongass National Forest: saved (for now) from new roads and clear-cutting

Mark’s visit was timely, as Congress was working on finalizing a spending bill, the details of which were released late last week. One would think the spending bill should just affect spending, which is important in and of itself because it sets how much funding public land agencies and important programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund will receive. However, Congress being Congress, the spending bill is also full of unrelated riders. We were particularly concerned about two riders Senator Murkowski inserted into the bill which would exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule and open up millions of acres of currently protected land for road building, logging, and development.

And finally some good news…

Thankfully, due to an outpouring of opposition from the outdoor recreation community, conservation community, and others who value wild unroaded lands, Murkowski’s riders were removed from the bill. In other good news, the final spending bill includes a 10-year wildfire funding fix and continues funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, at a slightly higher level than last year. However, even this slightly increased level of funding for LWCF is still less than half of what full funding would be, and the program is slated to expire on September 30 so we’re still pushing for full funding and permanent authorization for LWCF. Read a more detailed breakdown of what’s in the spending bill on the Outdoor Alliance Blog.

Over 90% of winter recreation takes place on public lands.