Tahoe National Forest Completes Over-Snow Vehicle Travel Plan

Delve into the details of the newly unveiled winter travel plan for the Tahoe National Forest.

Photo by Ming Poon


On May 3, 2024, the Tahoe National Forest published an Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) travel plan. This plan, developed over nine years, involved a robust environmental review process, substantial public participation, and the consideration of a diverse array of alternatives. While the final plan allows for OSV use in most traditionally used OSV areas and trails, it also secures critical non-motorized protection for key zones and promotes quiet recreation experiences along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

What are the nuts and bolts of the new plan?
  • Designated OSV Areas: Approximately 414,721 acres of Tahoe National Forest lands are designated for cross-country OSV use, generally above 5,000 feet elevation.
  • Snow Depth Requirements: Cross-country OSV travel is allowed only with sufficient snow depth to prevent damage to natural and cultural resources. The Forest Service explains that this is typically 4 inches of snow-water equivalency (SWE), or about 12 inches of “Sierra cement” (a type of heavy, wet snow common in Sierra Nevada). On OSV trails overlaying roads, at least 6 inches of un-compacted snow is typically needed to avoid damaging the underlying road surface.
  • Seasonal Restrictions: OSV use is prohibited in deer holding areas until after January 1 each year. Deer holding areas are specific zones within the forest where deer congregate. These areas provide essential shelter and food resources that help deer survive harsh winter weather conditions.
  • Exclusions: Commercial ski areas (including Nordic centers) are not designated for OSV use.
  • OSV Classifications: Class 1 OSVs are allowed on all designated OSV trails and areas. Class 2 OSVs are only allowed on designated OSV trails available for grooming. Class 1 OSVs are vehicles that typically exert 1.5 psi or less and include snowmobiles, tracked motorcycles, snow-cats, tracked ATVs and UTVs. Class 2 OSVs typically exert more than 1.5 psi and include tracked four-wheel drive SUVs and trucks. 
  • OSV Trails: The plan designates 373 miles of OSV trails, with about 247 miles available for grooming.
  • PCT Protections: OSV open area boundaries are set relative to the PCT to prohibit motorized use along the trail and ensure a non-motorized winter experience on the PCT. Plus, OSV use is restricted to 41 designated crossing points along the PCT.
How about quiet winter recreation areas?

The plan safeguards numerous quiet recreation zones by excluding them from OSV use, including:

  • The eastern side of the Sierra Buttes (including the Violet Couloir and adjacent chutes into the Flume Creek drainage)
  • The Donner Peak area
  • The north side of Yuba Pass
  • The area between Prosser and Boca Reservoirs
  • Kyburz Flat
  • Most of the Sagehen Experimental Forest (a portion of this forest is open to OSVs, providing a good venue for future research into OSV impacts)
  • Loch Leven Lakes and Fisher Lake

Many of these areas were previously closed to snowmobile use under various Forest Service “special orders” or were not popular with motorized recreationists. The OSV plan solidifies these protections, making them more durable and enforceable.

A New Take on Minimum Snow Depth

Unlike the other two forests in California that have completed winter travel planning (the Stanislaus and Lassen), the Tahoe plan does not specify a minimum snow depth. Instead, it adopts a more flexible approach using Snow-Water Equivalency (SWE) to determine the necessary snowpack for protecting natural resources. SWE is a measure of how much water is contained within the snowpack, giving a better idea of snow depth and weight.

While this method could offer greater protection because it requires a deeper snowpack in certain conditions, and we often advocate for utilizing SWE as a more accurate tool, it also places the onus on individual users to determine if there is sufficient snow on the ground for responsible OSV use. This raises concerns about enforceability. If minimum – or sufficient – snow depth is not well communicated by the Forest Service or enforced, this approach will not serve its intended purpose of protecting natural resources.

Good News for the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is a long-distance trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border through California, Oregon, and Washington. The PCT is designated for non-motorized use by Congress.

The Comprehensive Plan for the PCT states that motorized use is prohibited along the trail. While this may seem straightforward, the question of what “along the trail” means has been a matter of debate throughout all of the OSV planning efforts in California thus far. In this Record of Decision, the Tahoe National Forest clarifies that it is not sufficient to simply prohibit OSV on the trail itself, but a buffer zone where motorized use is prohibited is necessary to protect the quiet, non-motorized experience that the PCT is intended to provide. This is a major step forward from where we started with this and other OSV plans 9 years ago, when the Forest Service proposed designating OSV areas right up to the very tread of the trail.

In order for the PCT to not act as an impenetrable barrier across the entire forest, the OSV plan also designates specific points where OSVs can cross the trail. These points can be up to a quarter-mile wide in order to accommodate snow conditions. Many of these crossings overlay existing roads. Because of the large number of designated crossings with differing buffer widths, it will be important for the Forest Service, and partners, to monitor how the crossings are used. Monitoring will be important to make sure they are working as intended, that all 41 of them are necessary, and that the non-motorized character of the PCT is protected as the plan intends.

What is next?

The success of the Tahoe OSV plan depends on robust education, monitoring, and enforcement.

Visitor Education:

Winter Wildlands Alliance is prepared to assist the Tahoe National Forest in developing educational materials such as signs, maps, and brochures. Along with Tread Lightly, we are already working with the Stanislaus and Lassen National Forests to develop signs, maps, and brochures to educate forest visitors about winter recreation opportunities and the new OSV plans. We hope to pursue a similar partnership with the Tahoe National Forest and interested local partners.

Brochures and trailhead signs can help visitors understand where certain types of winter recreation are appropriate and plan their visits to the forest accordingly. These materials are also important for educating visitors about responsible and safe winter recreation. Because OSV use is just one of many types of winter recreation occurring on the Tahoe, we believe it is important that visitor information materials address the full range of available winter recreation activities, including snowplay, skiing, and snowshoeing in addition to OSV use. 


Winter Wildlands Alliance and other partners can also assist the Tahoe National Forest with monitoring and data collection to ensure the plan meets its objectives and to identify areas for improvement.

For the past two winters we have coordinated winter recreation monitoring and data collection efforts across several National Forests in California. We look forward to working with the Tahoe National Forest to identify specific monitoring needs relative to the OSV plan.


Finally, it is important not to overlook enforcement. Effective enforcement is crucial. This responsibility falls solely on the Forest Service and can be difficult when the agency has limited capacity. Winter Wildlands Alliance strongly encourages the Tahoe National Forest to apply for California Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Program Grants to bolster enforcement capacity. These grants support the management of OHV recreation in the state and aim to ensure safe and sustainable off-road recreation while protecting natural and cultural resources.

Winter Wildlands Alliance and partners’ education and monitoring efforts will help reduce enforcement needs and focus efforts where they are most needed. For example, visitor education helps reduce enforcement needs by reducing unintentional violations of the travel plan, and data from monitoring can help the Forest Service focus their enforcement efforts in priority areas.

The Tahoe National Forest’s new OSV travel plan marks a significant milestone in balancing motorized and non-motorized winter recreation, protecting natural resources, and preserving quiet recreation experiences. With continued collaboration, education, monitoring, and enforcement, this plan promises to enhance the winter recreation experience for all visitors.