Stanislaus National Forest Completes First Winter Travel Plan

2015 marked a new era in Forest Service winter travel planning, and 2021 is an important milestone in bringing balance to the backcountry

Photo Credit: US Forest Service (on the land of the Me-Wuk and other Nations)

The Stanislaus now has a winter travel plan

On July 13, 2021 — after six years of meetings, field trips, 670 individual comments from individuals and organizations, dozens of maps, reams of documents, and more meetings — the Stanislaus National Forest completed its Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation Project.

Publication of the Record of Decision on the Stanislaus website is a somewhat anticlimactic end to a long process, but we’re really excited to see the very first winter travel plan completed since the Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule was published in 2015!

Background

2015 marked a huge shift in how the Forest Service plans for and manages backcountry winter recreation. Before 2015, national forests focused on designating trails and areas for wheeled vehicle travel and more or less ignored snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles (OSVs). Forests generally closed a few small areas to motorized use in winter and otherwise allowed OSVs everywhere else by default. The Forest Service’s 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle Rule made designating trails and areas mandatory for over-snow use as well, and established guidelines for how it should be accomplished. 

Winter travel planning is the process by which the Forest Service designates specific trails and areas for OSV use. In doing so, the Forest Service has to consider how OSV use may impact other recreation uses, wildlife and their habitat, and natural resources and then designate OSV trails and areas in a manner that minimizes these impacts.

In most cases this is the first opportunity the public has ever had to submit official comments on OSV and other winter recreation issues. Once a forest completes winter travel planning, OSV use is prohibited outside of the system of designated areas and trails depicted on the forest’s Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map, or OSVUM.

Five national forests in California — Stanislaus, Eldorado, Lassen, Tahoe, and Plumas — were the first in the nation to get started on winter travel planning following publication of the OSV Rule. These “early adopters” test-drove the new Rule. It wasn’t always a smooth process because the Forest Service (and everybody who got involved along the way) had to learn on the fly what works and doesn’t work.

One role that we at Winter Wildlands played – and that we continue to play wherever winter travel planning is happening – was to help share lessons learned between one forest and another and help local grassroots advocates understand and get involved in the process. 

What’s New?

Under the new Stanislaus plan, most importantly OSV use is only allowed in areas or on trails that have been designated for OSV use. All other areas and trails are closed by default.

This is a significant paradigm shift that ensures OSV use only occurs in places where the Forest Service has determined that such use is appropriate and will have a minimal impact on wildlife, forest resources, and other uses. Under the new plan there continue to be thousands of acres available for OSV use on the Stanislaus National Forest, including all of the areas and trails that currently receive high snowmobile use.

As this plan demonstrates, winter travel planning does not automatically translate to the closure of popular snowmobiling routes and areas — unless closure is determined to be required in order to minimize impacts to resources or wildlife, or to minimize conflict with other winter recreation uses. In fact the majority of acreage closed under the new plan is below 5,000 feet in elevation, where there is not generally adequate snow for operating OSVs.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the details in the new plan:

What we like:

  • Protects important non-motorized winter recreation areas accessed from Highway 108. The Dodge Ridge cross-country ski and snowshoe trail system and the Herring Creek area;
  • Protects areas for quiet recreation near Bear Valley, CA, including Round Valley, much of the Big Meadow campground, the west side of Osborne Hill, and the Lake Alpine area;
  • Prohibits OSV use along the majority of the Pacific Crest Trail as it travels through the Stanislaus National Forest;
  • Limits OSV use in Stanislaus Meadows and Highland Lakes to times when there is at least 24 inches of snow present in order to protect the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the threatened Yosemite toad;
  • Closes the Sonora Pass OSV play area on April 15 annually to reduce the risk of OSV use disturbing the endangered Sierra Nevada red fox den establishment or facilitating disturbance or predation of fox pups once they leave the den;
  • Requires a minimum of 12 inches of un-compacted snow before OSV use is allowed in designated areas or on designated trails (and requires at least 18 inches of un-compacted snow on trails prior to initiating grooming each season).

Major disappointments:

  • Designates OSV use in 3 high-value quiet recreation areas near Bear Valley, including the east side of Osborne Hill, Mattley Ridge, and Cabbage Patch/Black Spring;
  • Designates OSV use adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail at Sonora Pass, in clear violation of the PCT’s comprehensive plan;
  • Designates a 410-acre OSV play area at Sonora Pass, in critical habitat for the incredibly rare and now endangered Sierra Nevada red fox;
  • Amends the forest plan to reward decades of illegal snowmobiling by designating open areas for OSV use in the Pacific Valley and Eagle/Night Near Natural Areas, which were closed to motorized use in the 1991 Stanislaus Forest Plan. 

What comes next?

Before the start of winter 2021-22, the Stanislaus will publish an Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map (OSVUM). This map will show which areas and trails are designated for OSV use in the new plan and once the map is published OSV use will only be allowed on those parts of the Stanislaus that are shown as designated on the OSVUM. This makes it much easier for the Forest Service to enforce their new travel regulations. The Forest Service will also need to install new signs in some places to help people understand the new travel regulations, and follow through on monitoring commitments made in the new plan. In addition, the Forest Service will be able to provide better OSV use enforcement, including enforcing illegal OSV use outside the established designated OSV areas and trails. The OSVUM will contain specific information to educate all winter recreation users regarding rules and regulations governing winter recreation on the Forest.

Meanwhile, we will continue working on winter travel planning elsewhere in California and across the West. We, and the Forest Service, have learned a lot about this process by working on the Stanislaus plan and we’re looking forward to sharing those lessons with other forests and they embark on OSV planning as well. We’re also looking forward to seeing the Lassen, Eldorado, Tahoe, and Plumas complete their winter travel plans and publish OSVUMs before the start of this coming winter.

2015 marked a new era in Forest Service winter travel planning, and 2021 is an important milestone in bringing balance to the backcountry.