Stanislaus National Forest

Stanislaus National Forest

Scoping for winter travel planning on the Stanislaus National Forest ended on August 10, 2015 and the Forest Service is now working on developing and analyzing a range of Alternatives.  The “Skiers Alternative” that we wrote with Snowlands Network would enforce existing protections of wild lands and unique natural features, set aside accessible areas for non-motorized winter recreation, and allow snowmobiling across a large network of trails and play areas.  You can view a map of our proposal here.

The Forest Service planning page, with information about the Stanislaus’ proposed action, is online here.

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Eldorado National Forest

Eldorado National Forest

The Eldorado National Forest also ended their scoping period on April 20, 2015.  As with the Lassen and Tahoe National Forests, we have worked with Snowlands Network to develop a “Skiers Alternative” for the Eldorado National Forest.  You can view a map of our proposal here.

The Forest Service planning page, with information about the Eldorado’s proposed action, is online here.

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Lassen National Forest

On October 3, 2017, the Lassen National Forest released a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) for its new winter travel plan. The final public comment period on the plan closes November 20. The Lassen, which straddles California’s northern Sierra and southern Cascades and surrounds Lassen Volcanic National Park, is the first forest in the country to write a comprehensive winter travel plan under the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule, so what happens here is very likely to impact winter travel planning across the country.

Forest planners want to get it right on the Lassen, and have assured us that they are eager to incorporate substantive comments into the final plan, so we hope to get as many skiers and human-powered winter enthusiasts as possible to send in comments. Read on for some quick background and our notes and concerns on this latest revised draft, or click here to send the forest service your comments using our handy template.

Background

As the guinea pig (or, perhaps, avalanche poodle), the Lassen NF has been working since 2015 — with some stops, starts, and re-dos — to set a course for how to go about writing a winter travel plan and complying with the OSV Rule. As we go through the process with them, we’re also learning – how to clearly articulate our winter travel planning vision to the Forest Service, how and when to reach out to other stakeholders, and how to better engage you – our members and supporters.

In February 2016 the Forest Service published an initial draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Lassen winter travel plan. They analyzed four Alternatives, or potential plans: Alternative 1 (the status quo), Alternative 2 (the Proposed Action), Alternative 3 (based off of the “Skiers Alternative” submitted by WWA and Snowlands Network), and Alternative 4 (the “motorized emphasis” alternative).  At that time we told the Forest Service that Alternative 3, with modifications to account for impacts to wildlife, wilderness lands, and natural resources, should be the preferred alternative moving forward.  We submitted our recommendations for improving the EIS in our comments to the Forest Service in March, 2016.

After considering all of the public’s comments on the draft EIS the Forest Service modified Alternative 4 to include elements of Alternative 3  and published a draft plan, otherwise known as the “Selected Alternative.” The draft plan and final EIS were put out for public review in in August 2016.  This initial draft plan was an improvement  over the status quo but was still quite flawed. It would have allow snowmobiles on one of the few official cross-country ski trails on the Lassen National Forest – the Dry Lake trail, which is part of the McGowan cross-country ski trail system – and did not go far enough in protecting quiet non-motorized recreation experiences on and around the McGowan ski trails.  The previous draft also did not meet the requirement of managing the forest as “closed [to over-snow vehicles] unless designated open” and low elevation areas that rarely receive snow, including 50% of the forest’s mule deer winter range, remained open to snowmobiles. While the previous draft did prohibit motorized use within many of the important non-motorized recreation areas on the Lassen, it missed the mark when it comes to thoughtfully designating specific areas where over-snow vehicle use is appropriate and instead relied on the old paradigm of allowing OSV use everywhere except specific areas where it was prohibited. You can find out more about the Lassen’s 2016 draft plan in this blog post.

In September 2016 Winter Wildlands Alliance and Snowlands Network filed an official objection to the Lassen’s draft winter travel plan, asking that the Forest Service do more to address the concerns outlined above.  Several other organizations filed objections as well.  In response, the Forest Service went back to the drawing board and developed a new Alternative and re-worked their Environmental Impact Statement.

Which brings us back to this newly-released Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) and the current comment period.

We Support the New Alternative 5

The new draft plan contains a much more thorough environmental analysis than the 2016 version, and also includes an encouraging new alternative — Alternative 5 — developed in response to objections.

The 4 alternatives that had been in the 2016 DEIS are still included, with a few modifications to bring them (mostly) in compliance with existing laws and policy. All of the alternatives now identify specific areas where OSVs are allowed and prohibit OSV use outside of these areas. This corrected approach is a big improvement. However, the Forest Service’s “Modified Proposed Action” (Alternative 2) is otherwise almost exactly the same as what was proposed in 2015 — it does not protect important quiet recreation areas or wildlife habitat and would designate as open for OSV use low elevation areas that rarely receive snow. Likewise, Alternatives 3 and 4 are also essentially the same as in 2015.

Alternative 5: Areas and Trails to be Designated under Subpart C and Groomed for OSV Use (Click for larger version)

Alternative 5, however, addresses all of the concerns that we had with the previous draft plan, and lays out a winter travel plan that balances motorized winter recreation with quiet recreation and protection of wildlife and the environment. Alternative 5 designates OSV use areas in places where people actually go snowmobiling (preserving all of the opportunities the snowmobile community values) and doesn’t designate places that don’t make any sense (like low elevation areas that don’t get snow).

Alternative 5 also does a much better job of protecting wildlife habitat – not designating any critical deer winter range as open for OSVs – and doesn’t designate OSV use within any of the quiet recreation areas that we identified. In addition, Alternative 5 protects the quiet, non-motorized character of the Pacific Crest Trail by prohibiting OSV use within at least 500 feet on either side of the trail, except at a few designated crossing points. Finally, alternative 5 would designate a 12-inch minimum snow depth standard across the forest – meaning that OSV use would not be allowed on any trails or in any areas until those trails/areas have a minimum of 12 inches of snow. This snow depth standard protects underlying resources including soils, vegetation, and subnivian habitat, and also complies with State of California OSV grooming standards.

Your Comments Really Matter!

The Forest Service has assured us that they do not have a preferred alternative at this time. All options, including everything in Alternative 5, are on the table. For this reason, it’s incredibly important that people participate in this public comment period. Whether you’re a local who can speak to particular areas on the forest, or somebody who’s never set foot in northeastern California but cares deeply about winter travel management on National Forest lands, this comment period matters. Alternative 5 sets a really good course for the Forest Service as it embarks on winter travel planning, and provides a good example for other forests to follow. We appreciate the effort that the agency has put into developing this alternative and we’d love to see the final plan closely resemble it.

We urge you to comment in support of Alternative 5 before the comment period closes on November 20, and we’ve developed a nifty online commenting portal to help you do so.

CLICK HERE TO COMMENT NOW.

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An Open Letter to the Snowmobile Community

Re: Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forest litigation

Dear Fellow Winter Enthusiasts,

I understand many of you are upset with Winter Wildlands Alliance right now. I also understand the catalyst for your anger is a recent round of alerts from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and American Council of Snowmobile Associations warning that Winter Wildlands is attacking snowmobiling on the Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forests through a frivolous lawsuit.

A few of you have reached out directly demanding explanation. Thank you. We’re glad for the opportunity for dialogue. I appreciate and respect your passion for snowmobiling and for winter outdoors. I share your passion for winter and public lands, and I think I understand your anger. I’d be mad as hell if I thought someone was trying to shut me out of my public lands or keep me from doing what I love in a responsible way. The privilege of adventuring into our wild snow-covered landscapes is one I hold dear and I’m here to tell you, despite what you’re hearing from certain leaders in the snowmobile industry, Winter Wildlands has no interest in denying that privilege to anyone.

Mark Menlove and his family using sleds to access a backcountry yurt on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Photo by Troy Boman.

Many Winter Wildlands members enjoy riding snowmobiles, either as part of their ski day or as another way to have fun in the snow. I myself have hundreds of hours on a sled. My family had snowmobiles growing up (though those old blue SnoJets were a far cry from today’s machines) and just before coming on board with Winter Wildlands Alliance I spent three winters commuting daily by snowmobile to and from a remote cabin where my family and I lived.

I still use a snowmobile on occasion to access backcountry huts and remote trailheads, and I know from experience I can always find common ground with a fellow winter enthusiast. I also know if I make the effort I can find mutual understanding of other perspectives and mutual respect for those who share my passion for winter. Invariably I find far more that unites us in our shared love of winter than anything that might divide us. In an effort toward understanding and respect, I hope you will hear me out in response to the recent alerts.

First, in regard to the litigation we recently filed, here’s the backstory and intent:  In 2015 the Forest Service issued a regulation known as the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule directing each national forest unit that receives regular snowfall to gather public input, analyze current conditions and uses, and then based on that information determine which areas on the forest should be designated as open to snowmachines. The rule includes a passage known as the grandfathering clause that allows forests to carry prior designations into a new winter travel plan if those decisions originally included public input and also meet the rule’s criteria requiring that open areas be located in a way that minimizes impacts to natural resources, wildlife and other recreational uses.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use.

Three forests – the Boise, Payette and a portion of the Bridger-Teton – are interpreting the grandfathering clause to mean they can simply add a sticker to their current winter travel maps, in each case a hodgepodge of piecemeal decisions going back as far as the 1970s, and call it their new winter travel plan. No chance for public comment, no analysis of current conditions, just a rubber stamp that says they’re done. Incidentally, these three are the only forests in the nation attempting this approach. We don’t agree with their interpretation, we’ve taken our concerns directly to each forest to no avail, and now we’re asking the court to clarify the intent of the grandfathering clause.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders – snowmobilers, skiers and those of us who are both – have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use. If forests just cement the status quo then we all lose the opportunity for intentional, balanced planning that will affect future recreation on public lands for years to come. We all know the backcountry is becoming more crowded each winter, with more of us using new technologies, both motorized and non-motorized, to venture out into our favorite places. Thoughtful planning with input from all of us will ensure we can all continue to enjoy our shared public lands in the future.

Winter Wildlands staff get ready for the approach to the Hellroaring Hut in Montana’s Centennial Mountains – 7 miles of snowmobiling followed by 3 miles of skiing.

We don’t take litigation lightly. We do understand it’s sometimes necessary as a last resort—when the feds aren’t listening. In the 17 years since Winter Wildlands Alliance was formed this is the fourth lawsuit we’ve filed against the Forest Service. Official snowmobile organizations have a similar track record as evidenced by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s recent lawsuit against the Clearwater National Forest and its lawsuit against the Kootenai/Idaho-Panhandle National Forest.

I don’t fault snowmobile organizations for turning to litigation when they disagree with actions taken by federal agencies. Petitioning the courts for clarification over government action is a right as fundamental to a working democracy as the right to free speech or the right to vote. I for one am deeply grateful we all have the opportunity to exercise that right. And for better or worse, in our great democracy, this is sometimes the only way to be sure things are done properly.

As to the broader claims that Winter Wildlands Alliance is out to eliminate snowmobiling or that we think we should have our kind of recreation but you shouldn’t have yours, let me be crystal clear: that is not true. Yes, we do advocate for balanced planning and management of our public lands to provide for some protected and accessible areas for quiet winter recreation – as just one component of public lands use in a range of other opportunities. That’s our mission. But that doesn’t mean we advocate against snowmobiles. We don’t.

It might be helpful to put those accusations in context: The alert from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association that ignited this round of anger toward Winter Wildlands is a fundraising appeal. I understand the need for fundraising in any organization but it’s disappointing to see some leaders in the snowmobile industry stoop to fear-based and intentionally misleading statements intended to pit snowmobilers against skiers, and to incite anger and distrust as a way of raising money. That approach sells everybody short, disrespects both the motorized and human-powered communities and divides us where we should be unified in our support and defense of public lands and our ability to use them responsibly.

I know there’s a better way to move this conversation forward, and I remain committed to open and respectful dialogue with all those who want to enjoy our public lands in winter. Winter travel planning, the very public process we’re trying to open up for all of us who use and care about the Boise, Payette, Bridger-Teton and other forests across the country, is one of the best ways I know to facilitate that open respectful dialogue. I hope you’ll meet us at the table to advocate for your preferences as snowmobilers and fellow public land owners.

Sincerely,

Mark Menlove
Executive Director
Winter Wildlands Alliance