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It’s been a busy month at Winter Wildlands Alliance. David Page, our advocacy director, has been road-tripping across California, going from Stanislaus travel planning meetings to Sierra-Sequoia forest planning meetings to California outdoor recreation lobbying days in Sacramento and then more travel planning meetings. Meanwhile, I jetted across the country to Washington D.C. to tout our vision for the Custer Gallatin forest plan and talk policy with the Forest Service Washington Office. Actually, I climbed a number of hills this month: after Capitol Hill, I went to the Wind River Range for some backcountry climbing. And throughout it all, we have been planning the 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference.

Grassroots Advocacy Conference
October 24-27
Join policy makers, athletes, grassroots activists, scientists, educators, and other recreation and conservation stakeholders and activists from across the country for two full days of engaging workshops and discussions on issues important to public lands, winter and sustainable recreation. Get the latest developments in policy and planning issues, share grassroots successes and strategies, meet with public land managers, gain new advocacy tools and spend quality time with colleagues, partners, new friends and allies. Visit the conference website find out more and to register!

NEPA
This is where you and the rest of our members and community have been instrumental. Together, we rallied 600 letters to send to the U.S. Forest Service about their proposed revisions to their NEPA regulations. The agency received more than 42,000 letters total. Forest Service officials have assured us the proposed revisions are a starting place and they will be taking public comments seriously as they develop the final rule. If you’d like to read the letter we sent the U.S. Forest Service, you can read it here. They have certainly heard an earful about the importance of scoping and concern about many of the proposed new Categorical Exclusions, so hopefully they make some serious changes!

Travel Planning
Earlier this month, the Stanislaus National Forest hosted an objection resolution meeting concerning their winter travel plan. This was the last public step in the winter travel planning process and a chance for anybody who filed an objection to the draft plan to discuss their objections and proposed resolutions. We objected to the Stanislaus amending its forest plan to permit motorized use in highly sensitive Near Natural Areas (critical habitat for the endangered Sierra Nevada Red Fox). We also objected to the Stanislaus designating a few important backcountry ski zones for snowmobile use and not properly managing motorized use adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. The objection meeting had many participants with different opinions, and now it’s up to the Forest Service to take everything they heard and decide what, if any, changes they’ll make before finalizing the winter travel plan.

The Plumas National Forest published a draft winter travel plan and final EIS last week. We’re still reviewing it, but our partners at Friends of Plumas Wilderness are tentatively optimistic about the plan. Objections to the Plumas draft plan are due in early October.

Forest Planning
I went to Washington DC earlier this month with two colleagues from our Outdoor Alliance Montana coalition (representing Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association and the paddling community). We met with the USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment and the Forest Service staff who oversee forest planning and the dispersed recreation, Wilderness, and travel management programs. We discussed the vital importance of forest planning, specific issues facing the Custer Gallatin, and the Outdoor Alliance Montana vision for the revised forest plan.

Meanwhile, David has been working with Outdoor Alliance California to review and comment on the Sierra and Sequoia forest plans. The draft plans were published in June and the comment period wraps up on September 26. The Sierra and Sequoia face the challenge of integrating and managing for outdoor recreation, traditional timber interests, and wildland conservation. We’re working with recreation and conservation partners to create and advocate for vision for the Sierra and Sequoia that meets these challenges.

From the beginning, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been an important tool for skiers to protect wild backcountry areas. So when the U.S. Forest Service proposed revisions to the way they implement NEPA—including rollbacks to public participation on the vast majority of projects and decision-making on public lands—they should have expected the public would have something to say about it.

Monday, August 26th was the deadline for commenting on the Forest Service’s proposed new NEPA regulations. The agency received over 42,000 comments on the proposed revisions—and over 600 of those comments came from people using the Winter Wildlands form!

Forest Service officials have assured us that the proposed revisions are a starting point. They’ve said they will be taking public comments seriously as they develop the final rule. They have certainly heard an earful about the importance of scoping and concern about many of the proposed new Categorical Exclusions—it’s our hope they take the time to think through any changes they make to their NEPA regulations and maintain integrity to the environmental law.

In addition to the form letter that 600 of you sent, we sent the U.S. Forest Service a 13-page letter outlining in detail our critique and comments about their revisions. Our most pressing concern is how far the Forest Service goes to scale back public engagement and environmental analysis. We also oppose any changes that would remove scoping—an essential and invaluable step in the NEPA process and an opportunity for the public to learn about potential projects. Finally, we are deeply concerned by the proposed categorical exclusions, which have the potential to significantly impact our outdoor recreation opportunities and conservation values.

WWA NEPA comments (1)

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.

 

 

 

COMMENTS DUE FRIDAY FEBRUARY 2!

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE something pretty rare comes along and you can’t help but take notice. For instance, early this morning we witnessed a super blue blood moon eclipse. That happens even less than once in a blue moon! Along the same lines, of things that happen “once in a blue moon” (or less), the Forest Service is taking a new look at what they do to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and they’re accepting preliminary comments through the end of this week.

The NEPA process is the environmental review the Forest Service does whenever they make a major decision. It helps ensure that public lands and waters remain healthy, resilient, and attractive outdoor recreation destinations and it’s the primary avenue that we, the public, have to participate in decisions about the way Forest Service lands and waters are managed. The vast majority of comments submitted thus far in the process are from the extractive industry – it’s time for the outdoor recreation community to speak up.

Click here to submit a comment on regulations.gov

Because of the way the Forest Service is collecting comments we’re unable to provide a one-click comment template for you to use. You’ll have to write your own letter. But feel free to use the following talking points:

  • I strongly support the principles of NEPA and believe that environmental review and public comment are a vital components of the land management decision-making process, since it helps to ensure that public lands and waters remain healthy and resilient.
  • I urge the USFS to approach any changes to the NEPA regulations carefully so that the agency has the tools needed to ensure that the lands they manage remain attractive recreation destinations for a wide range of users.
  • I believe NEPA and environmental review are important to preserve opportunities for the recreating public to participate in decisions about the way the agency’s lands and waters are managed.
  • The Forest Service should continue to invest in more up-front public process, including collaboration, to help improve and expedite project planning and implementation.
  • One way the Forest Service could streamline its approach to NEPA is to better utilize programmatic, landscape-scale analysis and decision-making, with tiered project-level analysis and appropriate use of categorical exclusions.
  • The Forest Service should not consider expanding upon existing categorical exclusions to enable larger-scale salvage logging.

Comments are due Friday. Act now!