Stanislaus National Forest photo courtesy John Buckley, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC)

The smoky haze that has settled over the West tells us we’re nearing the end of August. It doesn’t take many days of haze for all of us at WWA to start longing for the fresh clean skies of winter!

Forest Service Planning

We started off August wrapping up the Eldorado NF winter travel plan comment period. Now, we’re ending the month with the start of another comment period related to winter travel planning in California. The Stanislaus National Forest‘s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was published on August 24, 2018, initiating a 45-day public comment period to end on October 9.

We’ve also been busy with forest planning. We just submitted comments on the Helena-Lewis & Clark (MT) forest plan revision yesterday and we’re in the midst of reviewing the Chugach (AK) draft plan and Inyo (CA) final plan. One of the fun things about working on public lands management all across the country is the opportunity we have to share good ideas from one national forest with other forests. We do that a lot in forest planning. For example, because of our advocacy, the Inyo forest plan includes winter-specific recreation zoning modeled after the approach used by Flathead National Forest (in Montana).

Legislation

Our work at the Congressional level revolves around 3 main things – keeping public lands public, defending the integrity of our environmental laws and public management of public lands, and advocating for funding and tools to manage recreation and protect public land (to see what bills we’re tracking, click here). On that note, we want to highlight the main issues and legislation that we’ve been focusing on this month.

  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund expires September 30 unless Congress acts to re-authorize it. LWCF is the most successful conservation program in American history, using funds from offshore drilling to purchase land and easements and build and maintain recreation infrastructure. It has overwhelming bipartisan support both across the country and in Congress. The only reason Congress hasn’t re-authorized it already is that they don’t think it’s a priority. If we’re going to save LWCF we need everybody contacting their Congressional delegation and raising a ruckus. Learn more about LWCF and take action here.
  • Recreation-Not-Red-Tape is a bill that we are super excited about. It aims to reduce barriers to outdoor recreation access, and improve outdoor recreation aspects of public land management. One provision directs land managers to inventory for places on our public lands that could be protected as new National Recreation Areas, which would protect places based on their outdoor recreation value. This is a critically needed tool to proactively protect areas that don’t make the cut for Wilderness but that we don’t want to risk losing to logging, mining, drilling, etc. We’re working hand in hand with our friends at Outdoor Alliance to get this bill through Congress and you can use their advocacy form to contact your representatives about it.
  • Senator Cantwell (WA) recently introduced the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2018, which would legislate the Roadless Rule. This bill directly responds to the unprecedented threats to the Roadless Rule we’ve been seeing recently, including Congressional attacks, states seeking special interest exemptions, and the Trump Administration, which all share the goal of wanting to remove protections from millions of acres of roadless national forests. Please, reach out to your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor S.3333!

Finally, we’re excited to share our recently updated human-powered snowsports trends and impacts report. You can find it on our website here!

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.

Human-powered snowsports are an important part of the $887 BILLION outdoor recreation economy and the fastest growing segment of the winter outdoor recreation industry. With 16 MILLION annual participants, booming equipment expenditures and related tourism revenues, human-powered winter backcountry activities create jobs and bring income into rural economies while contributing to community development, quality of life, health, and public land conservation.

See below for the full report, compiled and written by Natalie Knowles. Or click here to download the pdf.

2018 Trends and Impact Report

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.