Photo by Darrel Jury
The Lassen National Forest began working on winter travel planning as soon as the ink was dry on the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle Rule. Seven and a half years later, on June 27, 2022, the forest published its final over-snow vehicle (OSV) travel plan.
As the first forest in the country to implement the OSV Rule, the Lassen set a course for how to go about writing a winter travel plan and complying with the OSV Rule.
Test-driving the OSV Rule, along with delays caused by unprecedented mega-fires on the forest (including the 2021 Dixie Fire) made for a slow process, but we appreciate the effort that the Lassen put into OSV planning. The lessons learned have already made for smoother sailing for other forests now working on OSV plans.
Planning vs. Implementation
The final plan, like most Forest Service plans, is a mixed bag. We’re pleased that it protects quiet recreation opportunities in many of the important non-motorized recreation areas WWA and our partners advocated for, including the McGowan National Recreational Trail, Elam Creek/Carter Meadow, the West Shore of Lake Almanor, and the West Shore of Eagle Lake. But we’re disappointed that the popular cross-country ski and snowshoe trails at Hog Flat are only partially protected. The trails themselves are designated non-motorized but the area surrounding the trails is designated for OSV use. We’re not sure how that’s supposed to work.
Under the new plan, skiers and snowshoers traveling the Pacific Crest Trail will find a quiet winter experience along the trail on both sides of Lassen National Park. However, the final plan designates OSV use right up to the tread of the trail (just not on the trail itself) along approximately 55 miles of the PCT elsewhere on the Lassen, with 12 designated crossing points. At these crossing points, OSV users are allowed to cross the trail within one quarter mile of the designated spot. Again, how this is supposed to work in practice is far from clear. The Forest Supervisor has pledged to work closely with snowmobilers, skiers, and PCT enthusiasts to monitor how this element of the travel plan “works”, and to make adaptations as necessary to reduce conflict and improve visitor experiences as more information becomes available.
We appreciate the Forest Supervisor’s willingness to treat this part of the plan as an experiment. Just as the planning phase of the Lassen OSV plan was a learning opportunity, implementation will be a learning opportunity as well.
Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Use
Altogether, the Lassen winter travel plan provides considerable opportunity for OSV use on and access to the Lassen National Forest. The plan designates 747,192 acres (or 65%) of the forest for OSV use. It does not designate OSV use in low elevation areas of the forest that rarely receive enough snow to accommodate winter recreation. In those areas that are designated for OSV use, the plan requires that there be at least 12 inches of snow on the ground before OSV use is permitted. The exception to this is for riding on the 411 miles of roads and trails that are designated for OSV use, whereon travel is allowed once there are 6 inches of snow.
Of those 411 trail miles, grooming will be allowed on 349, although the actual extent of grooming will depend on funding and may vary from year-to-year. Grooming, however, is not permitted until at least 12 inches of snow have accumulated. There are also many hundreds of miles of snow-covered roads within areas designated for OSV use that are not officially designated OSV trails but are open to OSV use after 12 inches of snow have accumulated, providing additional trail riding opportunities.
Over the past 7.5 years we have all learned a lot about winter travel planning. The “proposed action” that the Forest Service presented in 2015 focused on closing areas to OSV use, with the assumption that everything they didn’t close would be open to OSVs. The OSV Rule, however, requires the Forest Service to take a different approach, and thoughtfully consider what to designate for winter motorized use – a “closed unless designated open” paradigm. It took some time, but now the Forest Service (at least in California) fully understands this new paradigm.
Furthermore, the OSV Rule requires that designated trails and areas be located in a manner that minimizes impacts to natural resources and wildlife, as well as conflict with other uses. Figuring out what it means to “comply with the minimization criteria” has been a challenge for the Agency and the public, but with leadership from the Pacific Southwest Regional Office (Region 5), the Lassen and other forests in California developed a good system for identifying potential impacts and conflicts and considering approaches for minimizing them.
Now, we are working to share these lessons and approaches with forests in other parts of the country as they embark on winter travel planning. As we move into the implementation phase, hopefully with more efficiency than we saw in the planning phase, we are looking forward to learning more about how the forest will undertake monitoring, education, enforcement, and other important elements of actual winter travel management.