Back-country access | It’s a waiting game

Back-country skiers begin their adventure after finding parking at the end of the road at Emerald Bay. | Scott Rokis

It was a bluebird day and they came from miles around to ski untouched powder. Once the 15 or 20 legal parking spots were filled in, people began creating makeshift spaces in the center of Highway 89 by its closed southern gate. In the winter, snowstorms regularly shut down this precarious stretch of road before it winds its way toward Emerald Bay.

“We really feel like everything we’re doing is part of a sustainable tourism strategy, part of an economic development strategy, part of a natural resource management strategy, as well as an infrastructure strategy. We are looking at these four sectors and really trying to find a way to get all the people in all these sectors together to create opportunities specifically in wintertime in the Tahoe Basin.”
– Dave Polivy

The California Department of Transportation was up and at ‘em, too. When their workers arrived to open the gate for plowing they found skiers’ cars blocking their path. So, they called California Highway Patrol to have the cars removed. In the process, they turned several recreationalists’ natural highs into major bummers when they returned from shredding pow to find their vehicles missing in action.

Over the past several years, a series of ticketing and towing incidents similar to this scenario have roused the back-country ski community from its silvery slumber to complain about the parking problem on Lake Tahoe’s iconic West Shore.

“They don’t get it,” says Mike Schwartz, owner of The Backcountry, an independent ski, bike and mountain shop located in Truckee. “Recreation and public land access are not of concern to Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, United States Forest Service, California State Parks, Caltrans or our county supervisor offices. They just blame the other agencies and slowly let outdoor enthusiasts get planned out of Tahoe. They are too busy managing campgrounds and investor projects. It’s pretty sad.”

The small pull-off at D.L. Bliss can barely accommodate the number of skiers trying to access the back country, if it is even plowed.
| Scott Rokis

Schwartz’s comments echo the sentiments of many longtime locals who have witnessed the disappearing parking opportunities for access to Desolation Wilderness and the surrounding areas in winter.

“Do they think we should all just pack it into the resort ski areas?” says Schwartz. “We can’t even get a few signs that say, ‘No parking from here to here when snow removal conditions exist.’ That’s an old sign I’ve seen that pretty much explains the situation to the public.”

Starting in 2015, a Caltrans project intended to reduce runoff into Lake Tahoe inadvertently erased numerous traditional, albeit unofficial, back-country skiing parking spots from the popular corridor set high above Rubicon Bay, thereby exacerbating an already strenuous situation.

CHP and Caltrans maintain they are just doing their jobs with as much respect as they possibly can.

“When it comes to policy, our position mirrors that of the law,” says Peter Mann, Public Information Officer for CHP Truckee. “In reality, everyone who parks there is in violation.”

He says officers try to be gracious in their enforcement but can only go so far.

“Now there’s the spirit of the law and then there’s the letter of the law,” says Mann. “As long as we’re not getting calls, we’re going to leave them alone. But as soon as we get a call, we will take appropriate action. There’s days when the sky is blue, the snow is stable. Everyone wants to ski, but Caltrans is going through the same day. And by the time they get there to plow there are already 30 cars blocking the gate. Since we get the call we have to come down and take care of business.”

Mann said CHP is also concerned about impeding search and rescue efforts in case of an emergency.

The small pull-off at D.L. Bliss can barely accommodate the number of skiers trying to access the back country, if it is even plowed.
| Scott Rokis

“One concern would be getting in law enforcement and search and rescue during an avalanche,” he postulates. “Now that’s 100 percent theoretical, but it’s a popular spot so it could happen. What if there are multiple burials and we need to get the snowcat in and out?”

With less snow than last year’s record-breaking season, there has been a reduction in calls to CHP for vehicle removal, says Steve Nelson, Caltrans Public Information Officer for Lake Tahoe Basin and El Dorado County.

“I talked to the maintenance superintendent for the area and he said they really haven’t had any issues or complaints,” reports Nelson. “In my experience, the folks who are parking there know where we have to plow and they come in after our work is done. As long as we can still get our work done and they’re respectful, we don’t have a problem. That’s the deal.”

Meanwhile, the Lake Tahoe Sector of California State Parks have been periodically plowing the D.L. Bliss parking lot near the popular skin track for Jake’s Peak and keeps the Sugar Pine Point parking lot open for $5 a day in the winter for people to access the cross-country and snowshoeing trails there.

“We can’t always get there for a few days after a big storm, but if people can find a spot they are welcome to park there,” says California State Parks ranger Jennifer McCallan.

But it’s not just all about whether the die-hard Tahoe locals can get their fresh tracks. The hardcore skiers and split boarders can always get up early if they want to find adequate parking even at the most popular back-country spots. There are also the many other people who come from all over the world to cross-country ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, mountain bike and hike in the Tahoe Sierra.

All of these sports have been surging in popularity during recent years. Facts show that outdoor recreation in general is a growing economic driver not only in California, but throughout the world.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the USA’s recreation industry generates 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending per year. In California alone, 691,000 jobs come directly from outdoor recreation. The $92 billion spent per year in the state provides $30.4 billion in wages and salaries and $6.2 billion in tax revenue.

David Polivy makes up one small part of this industry as the owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports located in Truckee.

He is also the treasurer of Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, which is why he’s been on the frontlines of the back-country access issue.

“If you zoom out to a 40,000-foot view, we live in a region that is tourism dependent and people want to experience everything the region has to offer,” says Polivy. “We have to provide the infrastructure for the things people want to do.”

He and the rest of TBA have been communicating with local land management agencies in order to increase awareness of the issue and start brainstorming for possible solutions.

“We really feel like everything we’re doing is part of a sustainable tourism strategy, part of an economic development strategy, part of a natural resource management strategy, as well as an infrastructure strategy,” says Polivy. “We are looking at these four sectors and really trying to find a way to get all the people in all these sectors together to create opportunities specifically in wintertime in the Tahoe Basin.”

While he admits that “no physical progress has necessarily been made on the ground,” Polivy is upbeat and optimistic about the process.

“Everybody always wants to see something happen, so it’s a lot of managing expectations,” he says “One of our biggest successes has been growing the recognition of the issues. We’ve gotten a seat at the table for a lot of these types of planning and programs that are now happening and that has been a welcome turning point.”

One such solution-oriented relationship Polivy points to is with El Dorado District Five County Supervisor Sue Novasel.

“So much of it is about communication,” says Novasel. “That’s been the major takeaway. The Caltrans project was meant to reduce erosion into our lake. So, it’s a great thing that happened, but it had the unintended consequence of taking away parking from recreation. How do we find that fine line between protecting the lake and allowing access? We can’t work in little silos; we have to work together.”

Novasel recalls three meetings in the last three years where people from different agencies, nonprofits and interest groups have gotten together in one room to discuss the big picture of land management within the Tahoe Basin.

Even she admits, “There hasn’t been a whole lot of movement, honestly. Bureaucracy goes slow. Being a change agent takes time.”

It seems that any potential action steps are all on hold as the various groups anticipate the release of the U.S. Forest Service’s updated winter travel, recreation, and sustainability plans slated for this year.

“People like things done quickly and that’s not always the way it works,” says Tom Lotshaw, Public Information Officer for Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the bi-state agency formed in 1969 to oversee land management within the Tahoe Basin.

“The TBA, from my perspective, has done a great job of bringing a voice to that issue and getting everyone on the same page together towards solutions,” he says. “To make real progress, it’s going to take a lot of different people and agencies working together. It makes it time consuming and it makes it difficult with so many different partners and agencies involved, but it leads to much better potential for benefits at the end of the day.”

In the meantime, West Shore back-country users must be aware of the situation and assess their risk with parking, as they do with avalanche terrain, accordingly.

“The fact of the matter is that it is going to remain a two-lane road and the state parks have a limited budget,” says Heidi Doyle, executive director of Sierra State Parks Foundation. “Part of it is on the community to communicate and carpool if possible. Emerald Bay is a mess year-round. Honestly, I don’t think we will ever be able to fully fit the demand.”

To learn more about the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, visit tahoebackcountryalliance.org.