Local snowmobilers are biting their gloves in anticipation of the U.S. Forest Service’s release of its final decision regarding the use of snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles (OSVs) in five national forests in the Tahoe Sierra.
Click on Winter under the Out & About tab for links to each Forest Service district plan and to the groups involved
At stake is more than 4 million acres of public lands stretching through 200 miles of the Sierra Nevada running through Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado and Stanislaus national forests. These forests are all in the process of finalizing their proposed action plans for an updated over-snow travel management policy that could take effect as early as the winter of 2019-20.
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The issue of back-country access by the public is far reaching and important to winter recreationalists from skiers to snowmobilers in the Tahoe Sierra given the nature of land ownership in the region. Lake Tahoe is situated at the confluence of a cornucopia of protected lands managed by federal agencies, including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; California and Nevada state parks; and a myriad of conservation agencies, ranging from the California Tahoe Conservancy to the Nature Conservancy and the Truckee Donner Land Trust, among others.
In March, Lassen National Forest was the first to release its draft decision, a proposal that would reduce the amount of public lands accessible to motorized snow vehicles by more than 200,000 acres, and includes the introduction of 17 public OSV crossings of the Pacific Crest Trail and a 12-inch minimum snowpack requirement for cross-country travel.
On Oct. 31, Eldorado National Forest became the second district to release its decision. Individuals and organizations who have already commented on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) can object to the draft decision during the 45-day review period, which closes Dec. 17. General public comment is now closed.
Plumas National Forest released its DEIS on Oct. 25 for public comment. Plumas officials announced on Dec. 3 that it would extend the public comment period until Jan. 24, 2019, due to the impacts of the Camp Fire.
Other regional Forest Service branches such as Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which manages parts of the three forests that enter the Tahoe Basin, and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest south of Tahoe have yet to release any official drafts of proposed action but are required to do so in the near future.
“We’ll most likely get started in 2020,” says Humboldt-Toiyabe spokesperson Erica Hupp. “Sometimes it’s better not to be the first one out of the gate.”
A DEBATE OVER PUBLIC LANDS
National forest lands are the property of the people of the United States, managed by the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, they were historically open to unrestricted use by motorized vehicles.
The land management decisions currently underway are the culmination of a process that began in 1972 when President Nixon issued an executive order requiring federal land-management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts associated with the use of off-road vehicles on federal public lands.
While the Forest Service completed the requirements for dirt bikes and other motorized vehicles, it neglected to perform that same analysis for OSVs. Three groups — Snowlands Network, Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity — sued the Forest Service in 2011 to perform that analysis. The result was a 2013 settlement to complete the analyses for winter travel in the Tahoe, Eldorado, Plumas, Lassen and Stanislaus national forests.
Over-snow vehicles are defined as “a motor vehicle that is designed for use over snow and run on a track and/or as ski or skis, while in use over the snow,” according to the Federal Register.
“Based on public feedback and our own interdisciplinary team, each National Forest that sees significant OSV use is required by the National Environmental Policy Act to access potential environment impact and put forth updated land use designations,” said Tahoe National Forest public information officer Joseph Flannery.
The result of the settlement has led to a broad range of alternatives for each forest ranging from no change to the current OSV plan to an up to 86 percent reduction in land available to motorized over-snow vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest due to its proximity to Yosemite National Park and other wilderness areas, as represented by its non-motorized users preferred alternative in the proposal.
After going through the drafting and public comment process, the forest supervisor of each branch is responsible for deciding on a final plan based on feedback to the multiple alternatives put forth by the public, as well as extensive research of the environmental impacts of OSVs through the forests.
“Our decision wasn’t even close to being made during the draft, so we are going to be responding to comments and actively listening,” says Flannery. “We want our decisionmaker, Forest Supervisor Eli Llano, to have a range of alternatives to choose from.”
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?
The 45-day public-comment periods for Tahoe and Eldorado national forests earlier this year were a wakeup call for the local snowmobiling community to make sure their voices were heard during the decision process on the lands they ride for pleasure and to access remote back-country skiing locations.
At the time, many in the snowmobiling community felt blindsided as they scrambled to organize to have their concerns taken seriously.
“We recognized the OSV community wasn’t being heard,” says Dennis Troy, founder of Sierra Snowmobile Foundation, which formed to represent snowmobilers during the review of the OSV plans. “One of the reasons we formed was there wasn’t any good local organization yet.”
Since then, Troy and snowmobilers throughout the Tahoe Sierra have banded together to rail against suggested closures of popular snowmobiling areas such as Castle Peak and Carpenter Valley north of Truckee, Bucks Lake Road in Plumas County, Loon Lake in Eldorado County and Echo Summit in South Lake Tahoe.
Decisions on other popular zones such as Mount Rose and Relay Peak in North Tahoe and Blackwood Canyon on the West Shore are also in the works to be decided on by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit once it begins its public process next year.
“Tahoe’s a special place because there is a great balance right now that accommodates all users in a fair manner,” says Troy. “In some of the alternatives you now have a minority being excluding so others can have preferred access.”
The Sierra Snowmobile Foundation position is that the Forest Service plans are being designed to unfairly restrict snowmobilers’ access to public lands.
Tahoe National Forest received more than 2,000 public comments on the May proposal following the announcement of its five alternatives. The debate between skiers, snowmobilers and environmentalists became so heated that the Forest Service opted to take the comments down from public view following a rash of personal online attacks by some of the public.
“I think that from the release of the proposal to where we are now we have done a great job of engaging our public,” says Flannery. “For the people we didn’t directly reach out to at the beginning, we had a chance to reach out to them after we put out the draft EIS. I think we are going to be responding to the comments and actively listening.”
One red flag brought up by many veteran snowmobilers is potential implementation of designated Pacific Crest Trail crossings in many of the proposals.
“We all know conditions are constantly changing up there,” says foundation member Kevin Bazar. “The best place to cross the crest can change from year to year.”
Other potential objections include the 12-inch snow minimum, the loss of all areas below 4,000 feet where it historically doesn’t snow much and significant cuts into some of the only high-country ski terrain in the Tahoe Sierra that is still accessible to snowmobiles.
“I think the biggest thing is maintaining access areas that have been used historically by OSVs,” says Troy. “Our end goal is really trying to preserve that access. We were all back-country skiers long before we were snowmobilers, but right now you have some people advocating for closing areas that are barely accessible to foot travel in the winter. And once we lose this access, we never get it back.”
Another concern expressed by the Snowmobile Foundation was that Plumas National Forest originally set the deadline to accept final objections by vested parties until Dec. 9, then the catastrophic Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8, parts of which are within the Plumas National Forest. Officials have since said they would extend the comment period to Jan. 24, 2019. The dates for two Open Houses will be announced the week of Dec. 10.
“We’re still reviewing it and reaching out to the local community who have been impacted by the fire,” says Troy.
DIFFERENT VISIONS FOR PUBLIC USE
The snowmobiling community’s sense of being squeezed out is rooted in the fact that many higher elevation areas in California and Nevada are comprised of wilderness areas and national parks that are inaccessible by law to motor vehicles.
In fact, the Sierra Nevada contains one of the longest stretches of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48. From Granite Chief in the north to Bright Star in the south, there are 22 separate parcels of protected land including the vast swaths of John Muir, Ansel Adams and Golden Trout, along with three national parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
Because so much of this land is protected, snowmobilers rely heavily on national forests for access to the high country. Snowmobilers who live and recreate in the Tahoe Sierra often travel hours to locations where snowmobile use is allowed from Plumas and Lassen to the north down to Sonora Pass in the Stanislaus Forest to the south.
Hanna Bernard is the organizer of Sierra Tahoe Snowmobile Club, a group that helps people get together to safely enjoy the outdoors on snowmobiles.
“It’s really sad,” she says. “We’re getting squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. We have so little left that we are on top of each other.”
Bernard alludes to areas in Hope Valley and Carson Pass including Forestdale Road beyond Red Lake by the boundary of the Mokelumne Wilderness that were closed to snowmobile travel after a 2007 decision by District Ranger Gary Schiff of Carson Ranger District Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
“These are places that you’d never ski to because they are too far away,” Bernard says. “We are just local sledders so it’s really tough to fight against someone who’s never even been to Tahoe. They have all the money. I guess the squeaky wheel gets the grease. They really wouldn’t want to have any snowmobiles at all apparently.”
Local snowmobile groups have questioned the role of groups involved in the litigation in 2011 that spurred the current reviews of OSV use in the Forest Service districts arguing that none of the organizations are based in the Tahoe Sierra and therefore cannot best represent those who use public lands in Tahoe.
The nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance based in Idaho is dedicated to protecting winter wildlands for human-powered snowsports and is an alliance of more than 100 organizations in the United States, which includes the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance and the Friends of Plumas Wilderness.
The mission of the Snowlands Network, a nonprofit based on Los Gatos, is to promote opportunities for back-country, non-motorized winter recreation. The Center for Biologically Diversity out of Arizona is a science-based nonprofit whose mission is protect animal and plants species at risk for extinction.
Environmental groups on the other end of the spectrum maintain that they are simply holding the government accountable to complete its legally required analysis of environmental impact.
“The perception is that we are working hard to take away snowmobiling, but that isn’t really the case,” says David Page of Winter Wildlands Alliance. “We tried to look at where historic sledding took place and preserve that as much as possible. We’re not anti-snowmobile; we are working to find places where people can go where there aren’t snowmobiles. I guarantee you the snowmobilers are being listened to.”
“We are trying to reduce conflict,” says Jim Gibson, vice president of Snowlands Network. “People go up looking for primitive conditions and the wonderful quiet of the woods. Having a motor vehicle come by defeats the whole purpose. We are advocating that the Forest Service set aside areas for quiet recreation. What we’re looking for is to identity places we can go to not encounter snowmobiles.”
Gibson insists Snowlands is not against snowmobiles, but he is concerned about the damage they cause to the environment.
“They’re noisy. They’re polluting. They mark up the snow. They are impactful machines,” he says.
Troy maintains, however, that concerns about pollution from snowmobiles are overblown and based on decades-old studies, and he envisions a future with clean, electric snowmobiles. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates exhaust emissions for snowmobiles, as it does for passenger vehicles and recreational vehicles including boats and personal watercraft.
Some local organizations with encyclopedic knowledge of the Tahoe back country, like the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, have made specific suggestions pertaining to closures in hopes of respecting the historic use of both motorized and human-powered users, for example, keeping an area such as Castle Peak’s north bowl open to motorized vehicles while restricting several steep chutes to non-motorized users only.
Meanwhile, the Tahoe National Forest is assuring the public that all comments are being fairly weighed in the upcoming decision by Llano.
“I think that from the release of the proposal to where we are now we have done a great job of engaging our public,” says Flannery. “Our decision wasn’t even close to being made during the draft, so we are going to be responding to comments and actively listening.”
According to Flannery, after releasing the draft decision in January, Tahoe National Forest will allow 45 days for comments by previously engaged parties before finalizing and enacting the plans.
“Anytime someone introduces new information, we have an obligation to go over it and add it to our process,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposed action was modified once again.”