SnowSchool Field Report! December 14th 2017

By Kerry McClay

While its still technically the “pre-season”, many SnowSchool sites are working hard to train leaders for the coming winter.  This is especially true at sites that rely heavily on volunteer educators, such as Discover Your Forest in Bend OR.  This past week I headed over to Mt Bachelor (the site of DYF’s SnowSchool program) to provide a professional development workshop for 25 staff and volunteer educators.  And while many of the training sessions I provide each year tend to focus on experiential education for elementary students, this training focused on WWA’s unique middle/high school science curriculum.

Of course, we all remember our high school snow science class, right? Yep, didn’t think so.  Even though mountain snow supplies up to 80% of the water in many communities in the western United States, it remains an understudied and overlooked topic. To fill this void we partnered with NASA snow scientists in 2014 to develop a unique curriculum especially for older students based on modern field techniques.  For example, participants in this program calculate snow/water equivalent (the water content of the snow) with density cutters and spring scales (left) and also examine snow crystal morphology with high powered macro-scopes (below). The result has created repeat SnowSchool experiences for middle and high school that builds on their same initial science adventure they completed as elementary school kids.  

This programmatic addition is great fit at a SnowSchool site like Discover Your Forest, which annually engages over 2,000 elementary students from the Bend Oregon area.  Karen Gentry (DYF Education Director) and Bess Ballantine (DYF Education and Stewardship Coordinator) reached out to WWA to request support in developing this program to serve students in their community.  In addition to supplying the SnowSchool curriculum and activity guide, I was able to travel to Bend to provide a free training for the DYF volunteers and educators.  This included a classroom presentation on core concepts and a field day filled with hands-on science based on NASA field techniques!

At this point you may be asking, “Why is NASA involved in snow science?”   And the answer is pretty interesting… Snow science as a field has emerged relatively recently as questions about the Cryosphere (the snow and ice covered areas of the world) have become increasingly important over the past half-century.  Technology innovations have accelerated interest in improving the scientific community’s ability to estimate the water content of certain snow and ice covered areas (such as local watersheds and polar ice caps).  This is becoming increasingly relevant as climate change reduces polar ice and appears to be altering traditional local snowfall patterns.   To reduce our dependence on outdated historical snowpack data trends NASA is developing the capacity to estimate the water content of a snowpack using radar from aircraft (like a helicopter), and eventually from an orbiting satellite.  But accomplishing this goal requires scientists to first improve their knowledge of the snowpack itself.  In January 2014 at the Fraser Experimental Forest the NASA Snow Working Group held its’ first ever field workshop to improve scientists’ knowledge of snow.  Atmospheric scientists, physicists, geologists, engineers, statisticians (and one curriculum specialist!) all spent five days neck deep in the Colorado snow making careful hand tool measurements and gaining a greater appreciation of the complexities of a mountain snowpack.  This field course formed the foundation of the SnowSchool snow science curriculum for middle and high school students.

The purpose of the SnowSchool program has always been to give kids a rich hands-on learning experience that connects them with their local ecosystem.  Exploring their local winter wildlands on snowshoes is fun and helps kids build an emotional connection to the natural world.  By studying the same snow that will eventually supply their homes and communities with water in the spring and summer months, SnowSchool is helping kids create a personal connection with, and interest in, real science.

Kerry McClay, Ed.D. is WWA’s National SnowSchool Director

Contact him at for more information


SnowSchool: Local Lands, Local Leaders

By Kerry McClay

Winter is nearly upon us and that means SnowSchool sites across the country are gearing up to engage thousands of kids in an exploration of snow covered public lands!  And while we often talk about SnowSchool in these big-picture terms, of critical importance are the individual educators and leaders who make these programs happen in dozens of communities across the country. For example, our SnowSchool site in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah- Cottonwood Canyons Foundation– recently brought Katie Burbank onboard as their new Education Director. To highlight the importance of local leadership, I’ve included below an excerpt from my interview with Katie. Her inspiring story illustrates the impact WWA can have on individuals and communities through the combination of our programs.


KM- Welcome to SnowSchool Katie! Can you tell us the story of how you got involved?

KB- I had always thought that my love of nature would guide me to a career path protecting our environment.  However, my curiosity of the natural world led me to a PhD program at Montana State University, and subsequently, a position teaching chemistry at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Recently, I found myself re-visiting the notion of focusing my efforts on our public lands.   This past winter I was up in McCall, ID for a ski race and attended the WWA Backcountry Film Festival.  One of the films was about SnowSchool. I was incredibly inspired and thought to myself, “Now, that is something that I would really like to get involved in.”  As luck would have it, a month later, Cottonwood Canyons Foundation advertised that they were seeking a new Education Director who would oversee the Salt Lake City site for SnowSchool.  I wound up getting the position, dove head first into a pretty drastic career change, and am so glad I did.

KM- Why do you think it is important to have programs like CCF’s SnowSchool to get kids outside?

KB- While CCF is a non-political organization, I feel that environmental education is a very important component of advocacy. If we can get kids outside and teach them, I believe that it is more likely that they will feel connected to the outdoors when they grow up. Specifically for CCF, by introducing kids to the unique environment and incredible biodiversity of the Cottonwood Canyons, we hope to cultivate a sense of ownership for these public lands.  Additionally, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons provide 60% of the drinking water for the Salt Lake Valley.  By connecting our local youth to the mountains that are their watershed, we hope that they will become aware of the importance of protecting this area for their community’s health and for future generations to enjoy.

KM- What excites you about CCF’s SnowSchool program?

KB- I grew up in a more urban focused family.  It wasn’t until I attended a sleep away camp in the wilderness of Northern California that I cultivated my own connection to nature.  Many of the students that we take snowshoeing have lived in the Salt Lake Valley their entire lives but have never been up to the Canyons.  I love being the one who introduces them to this new environment.  I hope that their experience with the program gives some of them the same spark that I had when I first discovered the magical world of nature.

KM- What do you personally like to do outdoors?

KB- I pretty much live and breathe backcountry skiing.  I just love it.  So much so that I even wound up marrying my ski partner. It has been a real treat to live next to the Wasatch Mountains. In the summer, I like to mountain bike and trail run, but mostly so that I can be outside in the mountains and stay in shape for skiing. 


-Kerry McClay is National SnowSchool Director with Winter Wildlands Alliance

To find out more about SnowSchool and all our amazing sites click here!




Stop the Heist: Pushing back on behalf of public lands and the environment

Caroline Gleich and Rachel Spitzer, artwork by Jeremy Collins. Photo credit: Caroline Gleich

WE GOT A TON OF POSITIVE FEEDBACK after sending out our legislative update last week so we’re back with another update today. We’re here to help the backcountry community stand up to protect our public lands and environment, so without further ado, let’s drop in!

Public Lands Heist

Across the country Americans are speaking out against the public lands heist. In Utah people packed into a town hall meeting hosted by Representative Chaffetz, challenging him on his support for overturning Bears Ears National Monument and other efforts to undermine our public lands. WWA Ambassador Caroline Gleich was in the crowd and shared her trip report on the Outdoor Alliance blog. And, we just found out last night that the Outdoor Retailer trade show is leaving Utah in response to Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s resolution urging the Trump administration to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument and Utah’s overall assault on public lands.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, skiers, hikers, hunters, and many others are gearing up for a public lands rally on March 4 to tell their elected officials to #KeepItPublic! What’s happening in your state?
Here are the bills we’re currently tracking related to the public lands heist:

    • S.J.Res.15: Last week, the House voted to pass H.J. Res. 44 and throw out BLM Planning 2.0, which provides for public input in the planning process. The bill is now in the Senate, filed as S.J.Res. 15. If passed BLM land management planning would revert to the days of limited public participation and recreation voices struggling to be heard. For more information, check out this Outdoor Alliance blog post.
      Please call your Senators today and tell them to vote “no” on S.J. Res. 15. If you don’t know your Senate office numbers directly, call (202)-224-3121 to be connected to your Senate offices (just tell them what state you’re calling from).


    • HR 622 proposes to eliminate the Forest Service and BLM’s law enforcement ability. This bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry and the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands and these committees will determine whether or not to advance the bill.


  • H.J.Res.46, a resolution to roll back the National Park Service’s authority to regulate private oil and gas drilling within National Parks, has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Please tell your reps that you don’t support HR 622 or H.J.Res.46 and they shouldn’t either. We need Federal and local law enforcement to work together to protect our public lands and natural resources. As for deregulating oil and gas drilling in National Parks: really? NO. These bills jeopardize our public lands and should be shot down immediately. 
It’s not all bad news though. This week Congressmen Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) and Dave Reichert (WA-08) introduced a resolution affirming that our Federal public lands are national treasures that belong to all Americans.  When you contact your representative ask them to support H.Con.Res.27 rather than voting to undermine our public lands system.

The Environment

Meanwhile, as if undermining our public lands system weren’t enough, some members of Congress have their sights set on gutting our bedrock environmental laws and the agencies that enforce them. The Environmental Protection Agency—now headed by Scott Pruitt, one of the agency’s staunchest opponents—is at the center of this fight and we’re watching a number of bills on this front:

    • H.R.637 – Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017. This bill would repeal federal climate change regulations and prohibit agencies from regulating greenhouse gases in any way. Regulating greenhouse gases is the key to slowing or reversing climate change and that’s a pretty big deal. As skiers, we’d like the next generation to be able to experience the joys of winter. We don’t need Congress undermining efforts to address climate change.


    • H.R.861 – To Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.  The title spells it out pretty clearly – this bill would terminate the EPA on December 31, 2018.  The EPA is the agency that’s tasked with protecting human health and the environment. It’s kind of a big deal and anybody who enjoys breathing clean air, drinking clean water, or living and recreating in a healthy environment should be a fan of the EPA.  Seriously, they do a LOT of important things!


  • H.R.958 – To eliminate certain programs of the Environmental Protection Agency, and for other purposes.  The text of this bill isn’t posted online yet, but the title has us pretty concerned.

Action: Tell your reps to vote NO on these bills. The EPA and our environmental laws were enacted in response to burning rivers and silent springs and we don’t need to go back to those days. 

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo), opened hearings Wednesday to “modernize the Endangered Species Act,” which sounds a lot like yet another attempt to gut important regulation. We and our partners will be keeping a close eye on that one as well!

The most effective way to speak out in defense of public lands is to call your representatives in Congress and urge them to vote against bills that threaten our public lands or undermine our bedrock environmental laws. You can call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to get connected to your political reps. If you prefer email, however, we’ve created a web portal that allows you to easily email your senators and representatives. Whether you call or email, it’s important to let them know what you value as a constituent and what your thoughts are on the bills they are considering.


Hilary Eisen
Recreation Planning and Policy Manager


Backcountry Scientist Project – Round Two

We are excited to begin our second season of working with volunteer backcountry scientists on the Helena National Forest. Winter Wildlands Alliance is coordinating with Wild Things Unlimited (WTU) and the Montana Wilderness Association, with support from the Helena National Forest, and Defenders of Wildlife, to get citizen scientists into the backcountry to monitor forest carnivore presence and activity along the Continental Divide in Montana. We will be using a combination of snow tracking and camera traps to document forest carnivores – which species and where they are – on the Helena National Forest.

The goal for project is to find out more about how forest carnivores, including lynx and wolverine, are using Forest Service lands along the Continental Divide. The area where we will be working, the Little Prickly Pear Creek drainage, is just over the Divide from where WTU has previously documented wolverine and lynx but little is known about how forest carnivores use the area on the east side of the Divide. The Helena National Forest is revising their long-term land management plan and the information collected during this project will help the Forest Service better understand the wildlife resources on the forest and guide management decisions that can help to protect wildlife and the wild lands they depend upon.

Last year backcountry scientist volunteers, along with WTU staff, conducted 53 snow-tracking surveys covering almost 200 miles. They documented lynx, wolverine, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, martens, weasels and more throughout the project area.  Volunteers were critical to the success of the project last year, allowing us to more than double the number of surveys conducted over the winter.

During our training workshop for new volunteers this past weekend we documented bobcat, coyote, both short and long-tailed weasels, snowshoe hare, and a variety of ungulate species. Snow tracking is a great way to read the landscape and understand how other species travel and live in wild places in the winter. For example, one group of volunteers came across a bloody cottontail rabbit buried in the snow. After studying tracks they were able to deduce that an epic battle had occurred, starting with a sneak attack by a weasel and ending in the rabbit’s demise (and the weasel’s dinner). We’re looking forward to reading more stories in the snow and gathering important information to inform the forest planning this winter.

11th Annual Backcountry Film Festival

At the intersection of snow, community, and human-powered recreation comes the Backcountry Film Festival. Created in 2005 as a way to gather the winter tribe in celebration of all things human-powered, the film festival is the common ground where similar interests and diverse skill-sets meet. The Backcountry Film Festival is renowned for its collaboration with filmmakers from all corners of the globe, ranging from grassroots to professional. The festival provides a fresh lineup committed to get you stoked on powder turns as well as environmental initiatives happening all around the world.

What is featured in the Backcountry Film Festival This Season?

The films feature awe-inspiring stories, aimed to connect with and gain insight to what is happening in the places we go to get fresh air and fresh powder.

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Who attends the Backcountry Film Festival?

From polar explorers to weekend warriors, ages of three to one-hundred and three, the Backcountry Film Festival is attended by anyone with interest in the outdoors. Each year, the Festival is viewed by over 10,000 outdoor enthusiasts.

Where is the Backcountry Film Festival Held?

The Backcountry Film Festival is shown all over the globe. The World Premiere is in Boise, November 19th and 20th. Every show thereafter is posted at with location, date, venue, ticket information (if provided) and host organization information.

Who Sponsors the Backcountry Film Festival?

Black Diamond
Backcountry Magazine

Mountain Khakis

Outdoor Research

Elemental Herbs




Goal Zero

Atlas Snow Shoe Company


Odell Brewing Co

Often, host organizations work with local businesses to host screenings in their respective communities. If your local hosting organization has a website or social media site, you can check in to see who is sponsoring within your community!

Where can I Find More Information?

Find the showing nearest you at The website is updated daily and will give you venue and host information. You can also follow news, updates, and articles on the Backcountry Film Festival facebook page.