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Public Comment Deadline Delayed to Late December: Comment Now!

With our local partners at Friends of Plumas Wilderness, we support the forest’s preferred Alternative 2 with specific modifications from Alternative 5.

OUR TAKE: We like that Alternative 2 protects terrain east of Bucks Lake Wilderness, the Bucks Creek Loop Trail, the Historic Lost Sierra Ski Traverse Route, and the backcountry ski zone on Thompson Peak by Susanville. We urge that the Forest Service also include specific amendments from Alternative 5 to protect proposed Middle Feather, Bucks Creek, Chips, Grizzly, & Adams Peak Wilderness Areas, Lakes Basin Snowshoe and Ski Trails, Little Jamison Basin and to stop grooming on 24N33 to help prevent OSV trespass into the Bucks Lake Wilderness.

Last year, after exhausting all other avenues, we filed a lawsuit challenging over-snow vehicle use maps on 3 National Forests – the Boise, Payette, and Bridger-Teton. Today, we’re pleased to report that we’ve dismissed the challenge because the Forest Service recognized that these maps don’t comply with the OSV Rule and withdrew them.

Winter travel planning is a big deal for Winter Wildlands Alliance. The Over-Snow Vehicle Rule is a hard-won regulation that came about after a decade of advocacy work and we’re committed to seeing it properly implemented. This means that the majority of National Forests that get snow will need to go through winter travel planning. Any forest that wants to roll existing designations into an official winter travel plan — through a so-called “grandfathering provision” — can only do so if they can show that those designations comply with the OSV Rule.

The grandfathering of existing designations is a bit tricky, and could possibly be interpreted as a loophole big enough to drive a snowcat through. The provision isn’t meant to allow forests to codify the status quo and call it good. It’s intended to help make winter travel planning efficient by allowing decisions that already comply with the OSV Rule to be rolled into new plans.

However, faced with a shortage of resources and a desire not to stir up conflict, some forests have been tempted to circumvent winter travel planning by publishing over-snow vehicle use maps (OSVUMs) based on current management, regardless of whether or not that management complies with the OSV Rule. Publishing an OSVUM is the final step in winter travel planning, so once a forest publishes one of these maps they’re essentially closing the door on the opportunity to revisit OSV use designations or do any further planning.

Codifying the status quo without actually doing anything makes all of our past efforts to establish a protocol, process and requirements for winter travel planning moot. Which is why, when the Payette, Boise, and Bridger-Teton published OSVUMs based on outdated decisions that don’t comply with the OSV Rule, we realized we’d have to sue if we wanted to keep OSV Rule implementation on track. We don’t take litigation lightly, and prior to filing a lawsuit we approached each forest and made a case for why they should withdraw their maps and commit to doing winter travel planning instead. But they weren’t having it. So, in September 2017, we sued.

A few months ago we received notice from each forest that they’ve withdrawn their OSVUMs and will conduct winter travel planning when resources allow. Because the case is now moot, we’ve withdrawn the lawsuit. Onward and upward.

Now it’s time to talk about what comes next. The Bridger-Teton is about to embark on a forest plan revision, which is a perfect opportunity to set the stage for winter travel planning. Once the forest plan revision is completed (a process that usually takes around 5 years), we’d like to see the Bridger-Teton roll right into winter travel planning. From forest planning through travel planning, we’ll be advocating for backcountry skiers and wildland and wildlife conservation and we’re excited to help the Bridger-Teton revamp it’s management to reflect current conditions, opportunities, and challenges on the forest.

Meanwhile, over in Idaho, the time is ripe right now for the Boise and Payette to start working on winter travel plans. We understand that winter travel planning isn’t easy, but there are ways to ease the process. Right now would be a great time for these forests to convene collaboratives, or work with existing ones, to start thinking about winter travel planning and coming up with ideas and agreements that could inform the planning process and make it less resource-intensive.

Winter travel planning doesn’t have to start with the NEPA process, and now that we’re all in agreement that these forests need to do winter travel planning, we should be able to move forward with figuring out winter travel management plans that balance motorized and non-motorized snowsports and protect wildlife habitat and winter wildlands.

Related Media:

2018 07 12 Legal Challenge Holds the Line on Winter Motorized Travel

The Shoshone National Forest has published a revised Proposed Action outlining its vision for winter travel management on the forest. When finalized, this plan will have major repercussions for skiing and snowboarding on the Shoshone, especially on Togwotee Pass and Beartooth Pass.

We now have until December 10, 2017, to provide comments to influence the plan as it takes shape. Your comments matter (even if you commented last year, it’s important to weigh in again).

— CLICK HERE TO USE OUR HANDY LETTER TEMPLATE TO SUBMIT A COMMENT —

Context

The Shoshone National Forest bills itself as a wild backcountry forest, and indeed there are some amazing adventures to be had deep in the Wind River, Absaroka, and Beartooth mountains. What’s at stake in this travel plan, however, and where most skiers go, is the Shoshone’s relatively accessible world-class front-country terrain. Specifically Togwotee Pass and the Beartooth Pass.

The current Proposed Action —revised from the Proposed Action of May 2016—was developed based on suggestions the Forest Service received from the public as well as from groups like Winter Wildlands Alliance, Togwotee Backcountry Alliance, and the Wyoming Wilderness Association. This revised Proposed Action doesn’t change much from how snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles (OSVs) are currently managed on the forest, and for the most part we’re pretty supportive of what the Forest Service is proposing. You can review the latest plan, and look at maps of what the Forest Service is proposing here.

Discrete Motorized Season

For the first time ever, the Shoshone is considering a set season for winter motorized use. We like that they’re proposing specific dates before and after which snowmobile use would not be allowed, but the current proposal is confusing — there are different season dates for each ranger district and even different dates within ranger districts. We suggest they simplify things with a single season: December 1 through April 30, with a slight extension to allow snowmobile use on the Beartooth Pass until May 15.

Implementing these season dates would reduce conflicts between over-snow vehicles and wildlife and is a balanced way for skiers and snowmobilers to share the Beartooth Pass while recognizing that the two user groups have traditionally used this area during different and distinct seasons. These season dates also bring the Shoshone in line with how it’s neighbor, the Bridger-Teton, manages winter use on Togwotee Pass.

Protection for Cross-Country Skiing on Togwotee Pass

We are pleased to see that the Shoshone is proposing to formally close the cross-country ski trails on Togwotee Pass to motorized use (excepting for grooming purposes). The local trails group in Dubois — DART — spends a lot of resources grooming these trails for skiing and their efforts can be completely undermined by just one or two irresponsible OSV users. By closing, and signing, these areas cross-country skiers on Togwotee Pass will finally have non-motorized trails to enjoy.

Compliance With OSV Rule and Wilderness Act

In general, we think the Shoshone needs to do more to comply with the OSV Rule. The OSV Rule requires that the Forest Service designate discrete areas for OSV use, located to minimize impacts on wildlife and the environment and in areas that won’t cause conflict with other uses. Right now we’re not so sure the areas they’re proposing to designate really will minimize impacts and we expect them to explain how they’ve complied with this requirement when they write an Environmental Impact Statement.

We are especially concerned that the Shoshone has proposed to designate the entire High Lakes Wilderness Study Area (WSA) open for OSV use. This violates the Wyoming Wilderness Act, which states that snowmobile use in the WSA is only permissible if it’s at the same “manner and extent” as occurred in 1984. Unfortunately nobody thought to collect any baseline data showing how many people were snowmobiling in the WSA in the early ’80’s or where they were going, so we have to give it our best guess. While it’s pretty hard to guess how many snowmobiles were up there in the 80’s, we are confident that the machines people were riding then weren’t as powerful as what they’re riding today and therefore people weren’t traveling very far into the WSA. Therefore, we think the Forest Service should limit where snowmobiles can go within the WSA, restricting them to areas near the designated trail network (where it seems most likely people were riding in the past). After all, until Congress changes the status of the WSA the Forest Service is legally bound to comply with the existing law.

Press

Wyofile.org. 12/8/2017: Skis and Snowmobiles: National forest examines winter travel. 

On October 3, 2017, the Lassen National Forest released a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) for its new winter travel plan. The final public comment period on the plan closes November 20. The Lassen, which straddles California’s northern Sierra and southern Cascades and surrounds Lassen Volcanic National Park, is the first forest in the country to write a comprehensive winter travel plan under the 2015 Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Rule, so what happens here is very likely to impact winter travel planning across the country.

Forest planners want to get it right on the Lassen, and have assured us that they are eager to incorporate substantive comments into the final plan, so we hope to get as many skiers and human-powered winter enthusiasts as possible to send in comments. Read on for some quick background and our notes and concerns on this latest revised draft, or click here to send the forest service your comments using our handy template.

Quick Background

As the guinea pig (or, perhaps, avalanche poodle), the Lassen NF has been working since 2015 — with some stops, starts, and re-dos — to set a course for how to go about writing a winter travel plan and complying with the OSV Rule. As we go through the process with them, we’re also learning – how to clearly articulate our winter travel planning vision to the Forest Service, how and when to reach out to other stakeholders, and how to better engage you – our members and supporters.

The forest published an initial draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in early 2016. The 2016 DEIS analyzed four Alternatives, or potential plans, including one based on the “Skiers Alternative” submitted by WWA and Snowlands Network. At that time, we told the Forest Service that we supported the skiers alternative, with modifications to account for impacts to wildlife, wilderness lands, and natural resources (exhibit A of us learning as we go – when we developed the skiers alternative we left too much to interpretation and the Forest Service’s interpretation wasn’t quite in line with our vision).

After considering all of the public’s comments on the DEIS the Forest Service wrote a “Selected Alternative”, or draft plan, which they put out for public review in August 2016.  This 2016 draft plan was a slight improvement over the status quo but did not meet the requirements of the OSV Rule on many fronts. For example, the plan did not propose management of snowmobiles under the new legally mandated framework of “closed unless designated open.” Instead, it proposed the opposite, identifying a few areas to close to over-snow vehicles and leaving the rest of the forest open to OSVs by default.

In September 2016 Winter Wildlands Alliance, Snowlands Network, and 6 other organizations filed objections to the Lassen’s draft winter travel plan. In response, the Forest Service went back to the drawing board to develop a new alternative and revise their draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Which brings us back to this newly-released Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIS) and the current comment period.

We Support the New Alternative 5

The new draft plan contains a much more thorough environmental analysis than the 2016 version, and also includes an encouraging new alternative — Alternative 5 — developed in response to objections.

The 4 alternatives that had been in the 2016 DEIS are still included, with a few modifications to bring them (mostly) in compliance with existing laws and policy. All of the alternatives now identify specific areas where OSVs are allowed and prohibit OSV use outside of these areas. This corrected approach is a big improvement. However, the Forest Service’s “Modified Proposed Action” (Alternative 2) is otherwise almost exactly the same as what was proposed in 2015 — it does not protect important quiet recreation areas or wildlife habitat and would designate as open for OSV use low elevation areas that rarely receive snow. Likewise, Alternatives 3 and 4 are also essentially the same as in 2015.

Alternative 5: Areas and Trails to be Designated under Subpart C and Groomed for OSV Use (Click for larger version)

Alternative 5, however, addresses all of the concerns that we had with the previous draft plan, and lays out a winter travel plan that balances motorized winter recreation with quiet recreation and protection of wildlife and the environment. Alternative 5 designates OSV use areas in places where people actually go snowmobiling (preserving all of the opportunities the snowmobile community values) and doesn’t designate places that don’t make any sense (like low elevation areas that don’t get snow).

Alternative 5 also does a much better job of protecting wildlife habitat – not designating any critical deer winter range as open for OSVs – and doesn’t designate OSV use within any of the quiet recreation areas that we identified. In addition, Alternative 5 protects the quiet, non-motorized character of the Pacific Crest Trail by prohibiting OSV use within at least 500 feet on either side of the trail, except at a few designated crossing points. Finally, alternative 5 would designate a 12-inch minimum snow depth standard across the forest – meaning that OSV use would not be allowed on any trails or in any areas until those trails/areas have a minimum of 12 inches of snow. This snow depth standard protects underlying resources including soils, vegetation, and subnivian habitat, and also complies with State of California OSV grooming standards.

Your Comments Really Matter!

The Forest Service has assured us that they do not have a preferred alternative at this time. All options, including everything in Alternative 5, are on the table. For this reason, it’s incredibly important that people participate in this public comment period. Whether you’re a local who can speak to particular areas on the forest, or somebody who’s never set foot in northeastern California but cares deeply about winter travel management on National Forest lands, this comment period matters. Alternative 5 sets a really good course for the Forest Service as it embarks on winter travel planning, and provides a good example for other forests to follow. We appreciate the effort that the agency has put into developing this alternative and we’d love to see the final plan closely resemble it.

We urge you to comment in support of Alternative 5 before the comment period closes on November 20, and we’ve developed a nifty online commenting portal to help you do so.

Click here to comment now.

Re: Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forest litigation

Dear Fellow Winter Enthusiasts,

I understand many of you are upset with Winter Wildlands Alliance right now. I also understand the catalyst for your anger is a recent round of alerts from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and American Council of Snowmobile Associations warning that Winter Wildlands is attacking snowmobiling on the Boise, Payette and Bridger-Teton National Forests through a frivolous lawsuit.

A few of you have reached out directly demanding explanation. Thank you. We’re glad for the opportunity for dialogue. I appreciate and respect your passion for snowmobiling and for winter outdoors. I share your passion for winter and public lands, and I think I understand your anger. I’d be mad as hell if I thought someone was trying to shut me out of my public lands or keep me from doing what I love in a responsible way. The privilege of adventuring into our wild snow-covered landscapes is one I hold dear and I’m here to tell you, despite what you’re hearing from certain leaders in the snowmobile industry, Winter Wildlands has no interest in denying that privilege to anyone.

Mark Menlove and his family using sleds to access a backcountry yurt on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Photo by Troy Boman.

Many Winter Wildlands members enjoy riding snowmobiles, either as part of their ski day or as another way to have fun in the snow. I myself have hundreds of hours on a sled. My family had snowmobiles growing up (though those old blue SnoJets were a far cry from today’s machines) and just before coming on board with Winter Wildlands Alliance I spent three winters commuting daily by snowmobile to and from a remote cabin where my family and I lived.

I still use a snowmobile on occasion to access backcountry huts and remote trailheads, and I know from experience I can always find common ground with a fellow winter enthusiast. I also know if I make the effort I can find mutual understanding of other perspectives and mutual respect for those who share my passion for winter. Invariably I find far more that unites us in our shared love of winter than anything that might divide us. In an effort toward understanding and respect, I hope you will hear me out in response to the recent alerts.

First, in regard to the litigation we recently filed, here’s the backstory and intent:  In 2015 the Forest Service issued a regulation known as the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule directing each national forest unit that receives regular snowfall to gather public input, analyze current conditions and uses, and then based on that information determine which areas on the forest should be designated as open to snowmachines. The rule includes a passage known as the grandfathering clause that allows forests to carry prior designations into a new winter travel plan if those decisions originally included public input and also meet the rule’s criteria requiring that open areas be located in a way that minimizes impacts to natural resources, wildlife and other recreational uses.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use.

Three forests – the Boise, Payette and a portion of the Bridger-Teton – are interpreting the grandfathering clause to mean they can simply add a sticker to their current winter travel maps, in each case a hodgepodge of piecemeal decisions going back as far as the 1970s, and call it their new winter travel plan. No chance for public comment, no analysis of current conditions, just a rubber stamp that says they’re done. Incidentally, these three are the only forests in the nation attempting this approach. We don’t agree with their interpretation, we’ve taken our concerns directly to each forest to no avail, and now we’re asking the court to clarify the intent of the grandfathering clause.

The point of the lawsuit is to ensure that ALL stakeholders – snowmobilers, skiers and those of us who are both – have an opportunity to provide input into how each forest manages winter use. If forests just cement the status quo then we all lose the opportunity for intentional, balanced planning that will affect future recreation on public lands for years to come. We all know the backcountry is becoming more crowded each winter, with more of us using new technologies, both motorized and non-motorized, to venture out into our favorite places. Thoughtful planning with input from all of us will ensure we can all continue to enjoy our shared public lands in the future.

Winter Wildlands staff get ready for the approach to the Hellroaring Hut in Montana’s Centennial Mountains – 7 miles of snowmobiling followed by 3 miles of skiing.

We don’t take litigation lightly. We do understand it’s sometimes necessary as a last resort—when the feds aren’t listening. In the 17 years since Winter Wildlands Alliance was formed this is the fourth lawsuit we’ve filed against the Forest Service. Official snowmobile organizations have a similar track record as evidenced by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s recent lawsuit against the Clearwater National Forest and its lawsuit against the Kootenai/Idaho-Panhandle National Forest.

I don’t fault snowmobile organizations for turning to litigation when they disagree with actions taken by federal agencies. Petitioning the courts for clarification over government action is a right as fundamental to a working democracy as the right to free speech or the right to vote. I for one am deeply grateful we all have the opportunity to exercise that right. And for better or worse, in our great democracy, this is sometimes the only way to be sure things are done properly.

As to the broader claims that Winter Wildlands Alliance is out to eliminate snowmobiling or that we think we should have our kind of recreation but you shouldn’t have yours, let me be crystal clear: that is not true. Yes, we do advocate for balanced planning and management of our public lands to provide for some protected and accessible areas for quiet winter recreation – as just one component of public lands use in a range of other opportunities. That’s our mission. But that doesn’t mean we advocate against snowmobiles. We don’t.

It might be helpful to put those accusations in context: The alert from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association that ignited this round of anger toward Winter Wildlands is a fundraising appeal. I understand the need for fundraising in any organization but it’s disappointing to see some leaders in the snowmobile industry stoop to fear-based and intentionally misleading statements intended to pit snowmobilers against skiers, and to incite anger and distrust as a way of raising money. That approach sells everybody short, disrespects both the motorized and human-powered communities and divides us where we should be unified in our support and defense of public lands and our ability to use them responsibly.

I know there’s a better way to move this conversation forward, and I remain committed to open and respectful dialogue with all those who want to enjoy our public lands in winter. Winter travel planning, the very public process we’re trying to open up for all of us who use and care about the Boise, Payette, Bridger-Teton and other forests across the country, is one of the best ways I know to facilitate that open respectful dialogue. I hope you’ll meet us at the table to advocate for your preferences as snowmobilers and fellow public land owners.

Sincerely,

Mark Menlove
Executive Director
Winter Wildlands Alliance

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