The 2016-17 season has been one of the largest snow seasons Lake Tahoe has experienced in years as Tahoe ski resorts have reported anywhere from 39 to 46 feet of natural snow since the season started, with some reporting record snowfall. As skiers and snowboarders have been seeking his or her own slice of powder and to escape from the daily grind, locals and visitors alike have been finding solace in the back country.
However, access to those trails has been denuded in recent years, the unintended victim of water quality improvement projects in the Tahoe Basin. When the Tahoe Weekly first reported on this issue in fall 2015 for our feature story “You Can’t Park Here: Back-country Skiers Lament Loss of West Shore Parking,” access had already started to diminish. A group of back-country enthusiasts banded together and approached local government agencies as a unified front under the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance to try to restore parking.
“People drive 4 to 5 hours up to the mountains to be in the mountains,” says Jason Layh, and people need a place to park. Layh works at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City and is one of the founders of the Alliance noting that dozens of people come into Alpenglow Sports a day looking for snowshoes, back-country ski setups, downhill-oriented gear and safety equipment.
“This isn’t just about back-country skiers, it’s an issue about access to public lands in the winter. If it gets to the point where we can’t get out and enjoy it then it will be devastating. The public needs to keep their eyes open, otherwise it will get taken away. This affects mountain bikers, climbers, hikers, anyone who likes to enjoy the outdoors in the whole Lake Tahoe watershed.” –Jason Layh
The goal of the water quality project was to improve and preserve Lake Tahoe’s clarity by improving stormwater drainage throughout the Basin, thereby controlling the amount of sediment from mountain runoff that flows into the Lake, which can lead to a decline in lake clarity. Curbs and gutters have been installed on nearly all of Tahoe’s major roadways encircling the Lake, with the project now near completion.
The improvements also included removing many dirt turnouts along the highways to control sediment runoff and paving some dirt turnouts that greatly reduced parking availability. Roadway turnouts are intended for emergency parking only, say local and state agencies, however back-country users say those turnouts are essential public access points for popular summer and winter trails like Jake’s Peak and the Rubicon on the West Shore and Mount Tallac on the South Shore.
Maintaining public access
No one disputes that protecting Big Blue’s famous waters is important, but many back-country users say that maintaining the public’s access to public lands needs to be an essential component to planning future projects in the Tahoe Basin.
“This isn’t just about back-country skiers, it’s an issue about access to public lands in the winter,” Layh says. “If it gets to the point where we can’t get out and enjoy it then it will be devastating. The public needs to keep their eyes open, otherwise it will get taken away. This affects mountain bikers, climbers, hikers, anyone who likes to enjoy the outdoors in the whole Lake Tahoe watershed.”
When the Alliance organized in 2105, Layh says it was successful in advocating to keep access along the West Shore for places like Jake’s Peak from D.L. Bliss State Park. They also pushed for D.L. Bliss to be plowed to enjoy promontories such as Rubicon Point.
The project dates to 2008 when government agencies including the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), Caltrans and the U.S. Forest Service began working together on the project to improve Lake Tahoe’s water clarity. The project went through the normal environmental review process, including holding public meetings.
However, what no one took into consideration was how the project would affect recreational access to trailheads, especially during the winter months when on-street parking is prohibited for snow removal. Back-country users quickly noticed diminished access to trailheads such as Jake’s Peak, Bliss Peak and Desolation Wilderness as turnouts were eliminated.
Soon after the Tahoe Weekly first reported on the issue, El Dorado County and the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) held a series of meetings to continue the discussion about access issues. LTBMU’s Heather Noel said that the public meetings held in March and April 2016 had mixed attendance, but that the agency received more than 200 comments in response to letters.
“The meetings were beneficial to get everyone on the same page on where the access issues are,” said TRPA public information officer Tom Lotshaw. He added that TRPA officials also prompted the Alliance to become a formal group and express the main issues as a unified front.
“It is a constant challenge to get the right people to see (these projects) however you present it, but the good that came out of it is now we have an established relationship with that group of back-country skiers,” says Lotshaw.
Parking a challenge
The TRPA also went on several field trips with the Alliance to take a closer look at the access areas, which resulted in an arrangement to keep the parking lot at D.L. Bliss State Park plowed in the winter along with other access points along Highway 89 on the West Shore.
“In addition, we recently met with Tahoe Backcountry Alliance to understand current parking and access issues they’re seeing and provide a status update on projects we’re working on to increase parking capacity for users along the corridor,” says Noel.
The Alliance for its part has been working hard to stay abreast of all the issues and advocate for public lands access as they continue to see an increase of people trying to access the Tahoe back country.
Progress is being made to address public access within the Tahoe Basin as the number of winter back-country users has been steadily increasing.
In 2014, Snowsports Industries America released a study stating that more than 6 million skiers and snowboarders have started exploring the back country and more than $54 million was spent in alpine touring skis, boots and accessories (like climbing skins). From snowshoers and sledders to people strapping skins onto their skis and climbing the tallest peaks, it seems like more and more people are venturing out into the woods to find peace, quiet and, hopefully, fresh snow.
The parking area at D.L. Bliss State Park has been periodically closed due to the immense powder from 2017 storms, but Caltrans has been plowing turnouts along the West Shore.
“We’ve been inundated with snow and all of us at the TBA are thrilled that winter public access has been so good,” Layh says.
However, there have been some conflicts as the large snow events have led to even more parking issues, with some back-country users reporting vehicles being towed from turnouts while skiing.
A voice in public policy
Although the group of back-country enthusiasts formed only when the Highway 89 water improvement project came on their radar, Layh believes that the timing was good to be involved in some of the other plans around Lake Tahoe that are up for revision.
“These opportunities come up only every 10 to 20 years, so the timing is fantastic to have the TBA give input on what is necessary and needed. We’re playing catch up, but thankfully all of the agencies have been really receptive,” Layh says, adding that the Alliance is involved in the forthcoming Winter Travel Management Plan from the Forest Service.
However, the Alliance is concerned that there is a larger public access issue lingering – that without active lobbying, parking to access favorite trailheads may disappear and it encourages the public to become involved in maintaining access.
Moving forward, Layh says that one of the main priorities of the Alliance is to try to gather data of how many people are using Tahoe’s back country.
“We are continuing to work with the TRPA, LTBMU, El Dorado and Placer counties to advocate for winter recreation access. In addition, we are collaborating with the TRTA [Tahoe Rim Trail Association] this winter to gather some back-country skier use data. This type of info is almost completely absent from our area and has the potential to help inform planning decisions,” added Alliance president David Reichel.
The Alliance has raised more than $10,000 to collect data on trail users and the group is working on signage regarding back-country access, safety and awareness.
Looking ahead, the Forest Service is working on a back-country access plan for the Lake Tahoe Basin, which is expected to be released in the coming months, which officials say will take into account public concerns on parking. In analyzing the public comments, Noel said people were most interested in open and closed access for snowmobiles and other motorized use, along with increased parking and signage.
“The bottom line is that there was a project that presented concerns and this instigated a balancing point. There’s greater awareness and understanding for all involved,” says Lotshaw. “The issue is not resolved but we are seeing progress and working together.”
For more information about the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, visit tahoebackcountryalliance.org. For more information about LTBMU’s Winter Travel Management Plan, visit fs.usda.gov/goto/ltbmu/wintertravelmgmt.