Posts

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Friends of Plumas Wilderness


The Plumas National Forest published its Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision for winter travel planning, striking a balance for backcountry skiers.


You don’t need chairlifts to have a strong ski community and heritage. The skiers who take to the hills in the Plumas National Forest know this as well as anyone.

Skiing has a long history in the Plumas National Forest. Winters in the mid 1800s, during California’s gold rush, saw miners speeding down treed slopes on handcrafted, wooden longboards. A century later, the Plumas Ski Club ran a rope tow on a hill where generations of families learned to carve turns on the winter snowpack. Like a lot of mom-and-pop ski areas, the Plumas-Eureka Ski Bowl was a community hub. Volunteers would log hours in exchange for free ski time, and kids were raised on the slopes.

The Ski Bowl shuttered its operations in 2002, but the skiing spirit continues. Every third Sunday in January, February, and March, dope—secret concoctions for ski wax—reigns at the Historic Longboard Revival Race Series. Most other days, backcountry skiers will find that the woods and mountains of the Plumas lives up to its moniker, the Lost Sierra.

“You can truly get lost and get away,” says Darrel Jury, president of the Friends of Plumas Wilderness. “We don’t have the big dramatic peaks, but you can find your little oasis and have it all to yourself. That’s what’s different about here.”

Alongside its ski history, the Plumas also has a longtime boom-and-bust relationship with resource extraction, starting with gold and then timber. In that context, the Friends of Plumas Wilderness is a small, hardworking group devoted to conserving sanctuaries for human-powered recreation in the forest, in both summer and winter. As a grassroots partner, we aim to join their cause and amplify their vision to protect places so quiet they will always feel worthy of the Lost Sierra.

Last month, the U.S. Forest Service published their draft Record of Decision and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Over-Snow Vehicle use in the Plumas National Forest. To carry on the long legacy of human-powered and community-centric skiing, the plan in the Plumas OSV plan is a good one, in large part because prior to this process the Plumas had so few protections for non-motorized areas in the winter so there was lots of room for improvement.

The 1.1 million-acre Plumas National Forest has only one Wilderness area: Bucks Lake, which conserves almost 24,000 acres from the lower elevations along the Feather River to 7,017-foot Spanish Peak. The Plumas-Eureka State Park and the Pacific Crest Trail are also motor-free zones. As Jury will tell you, the forest is largely accessed by snowmobiles. But if you know where to go, there are a few remaining places where backcountry skiers can still cut a skin track through undisturbed snow.

Following the lead of the Friends of Plumas Wilderness, we believe the new OSV plan strikes a balance between motorized and human-powered access. It enhances opportunities for backcountry skiing in the places that matter: adjacent to Bucks Lake Wilderness and Plumas-Eureka State Park, on Thompson Peak near Susanville, and along the Triple Crown ski route and the Lost Sierra Traverse. The latter is a multi-day trek along the northern Sierra crest that connects two historic mining towns.

The plan also sets a 12-inch minimum snow depth for snowmobiles, which minimizes the impact motors have on soils, endangered frogs, plants and other cultural and natural resources. It also keeps snowmobile use concentrated in high-elevation areas, which is an important step toward protecting the places below the snowline, where snowfall is rare and infrequent.

For several years, we have been working alongside the Friends of Plumas Wilderness as advocates for human-powered recreation with Plumas Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton and his staff. We submitted scoping comments in November 2015 and last January, we also submitted comments on the draft EIS. Because the plan strikes a balance between motorized and human-powered access, we are overall impressed with the work the Plumas National Forest has done to protect wild places and snow sanctuaries and manage the forest for everyone in the backcountry snowsports community.

However, the process is not over yet and there are still places on the Plumas that we have advocated for and still hope will become backcountry ski sanctuaries. To reduce places of conflict between snowmobile and human-powered recreation and to protect high-value roadless areas in the Plumas, we have several objections to the Plumas OSV plan’s latest documents that we are filing with the U.S. Forest Service. The deadline to submit any objection to the Forest Service’s OSV plan in the Plumas is October 4th. You can read more about our comments and objections here.

From the beginning, the National Environmental Policy Act has been an important tool for skiers seeking to protect wild backcountry areas. 

Photo: Mineral King Valley/Creative Commons

Right now, the Forest Service is considering some broad, potentially devastating changes to how it implements NEPA that could scale back your ability to have a voice over your public lands. Their proposed changes would roll back the public process from about 93% of all Forest Service projects, and in some cases, eliminate public notice altogether.

Industry groups and extractive companies who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA rolled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. The Forest Service also has not been very efficient in how they’ve done environmental analysis in the past, and there are legitimate reasons for them to pursue some modest reforms. It’s essential that they proceed cautiously, though, because changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.

The Forest Service is accepting public comments on these proposed revisions until August 26. We’ve made it easy to share your thoughts directly with the Forest Service through the link below.

Click Here To Comment Now

 

Photo Credit: USC Libraries/Mineral King Development Records

Mineral King is a sub-alpine glacial valley in the southern Sierra Nevada that was annexed into Sequoia National Park in 1978. It once was a place used by Native American tribes, including the Wikchúmni Yokut and the Tübatulabal. Today, it’s a scene that rivals Tuolumne Meadows or other High Sierra valleys, with a few remote campsites and a handful of summer cabins that were built in the 1940s. The area is remote; trails connect it to the rest of the national park. From the west, a narrow, winding road grants access from late spring to early fall. As soon as snow falls, the road shuts down and allows Mineral King to rest in solitude, save for the few backcountry skiers who are up for a long approach.

But it almost wasn’t that way. 

Had President Nixon not signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on January 1, 1970, Mineral King may very well have become a huge, bustling ski resort with 22 lifts, a gondola, a five-story hotel with more than a thousand rooms, a movie theater, general store, pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and a golf course. 

In February 1965, the Forest Service invited proposals for a ski resort in Mineral King and they accepted the bid from the Walt Disney Company, which envisioned a ski resort sprawling across the valley with 3,700 vertical feet and four-mile-long ski runs. To build the ski resort, they would have had to build a highway through the National Park. Clearly, it would have been a huge construction project on the edge of Sequoia National Park with a massive impact on the forest area and local wildlife, despite Mineral King receiving a designation by Congress in 1926 as a national game refuge. The New York Times summed up the “Battle of Mineral King” in a story published in 1969, pitting nature-lovers fearing a ‘winter Disneyland’ against the federal government and major commercial interests. 

In 1969, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Sequoia National Park, Sequoia National Forest, and the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction, which halted the project until the case reached the Supreme Court. The Sierra Club argued that the ski resort development would “adversely change the area’s aesthetics and ecology.” But the lawsuit was struck down in 4-3 vote by the Supreme Court on April 19, 1972.

Enter NEPA.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before NEPA, one of the only tools to fight for the environment was litigation. NEPA passed Congress by a large, bipartisan majority in 1969, including a unanimous vote in the Senate. When Nixon signed it into law, NEPA triggered “a revolutionary change in governmental decision-making that is important to this day,” according to the Environmental Law Institute. In a statement given just before NEPA’s passage to law, Senator Henry M. Jackson said, “The basic principle of this policy is that we must strive in all that we do to achieve a standard of excellence in man’s relationships to his physical surroundings.”

In the case of Mineral King, NEPA required the Forest Service and Walt Disney Company to engage in a public process that would study and analyze the impacts of their proposal on the environment and public health before construction began. As the Sierra Club amended its lawsuit, Disney was required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, which included a period of review for public comment. The final 600-page statement was released in February 1976. By then, Disney realized the scope of their project’s environmental impact and they walked away. In 1978, President Carter authorized Mineral King’s annexation to Sequoia National Park. 

Photo Credit: USC Libraries/Mineral King Development Records

 

For more stories about how NEPA has saved our environment and the places we love to recreate, head over to ProtectNEPA.org.