Forest Service eyes public access in Tahoe Basin

A snow trail on Freel Peak. | Jonathan Cook, U.S. Forest Service

The future of access to public lands surrounding Lake Tahoe will be decided through a management plan currently being developed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit recently released its proposal for an over-the-snow vehicle management plan and an outline for future winter recreation improvements in the region.

“In some areas we were prompted to close OSV use and in others open OSV use because there were no other concerns and we are meeting minimization criteria for impact. It’s important to note that part of our criteria is not closing areas to OSV use unless there is some reason to do so and to open OSV use when there is not another concern in the area.” — Ashley Sibr, LTBMU

This is the first step in what will be a three-part process to develop the final plan. At stake is the future management of 242 square miles of public land encompassing one of nature’s most pristine creations: the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“We want people to comment and we use that comment to develop alternatives,” said Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) project team lead Ashley Sibr.

Follow our ongoing coverage of public access issues to public lands.

View USFS maps for Areas of Change and Grooming and Snowplay.

View detailed descriptions of areas being modified in the proposal.

The plan was released on Sept. 20; public comment has been extended until Dec. 9. There will be Open Houses on Nov. 13 from 3 to 5 p.m. at The Parasol Building in Incline Village, Nev., and on Nov. 14 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in South Lake Tahoe.

This is the sixth out of seven national forest management districts in the greater Lake Tahoe region to develop a management plan after a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture ruling required the official designation of where over-the-snow (OSV) vehicles — including snowmobiles, snowbikes and snowcats — can and cannot go within public lands.

So far, Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado and Stanislaus national forests have all released Final Environmental Impact Statements (FEIS) and a draft Record of Decision (ROD), of which the objection periods are now closed. This means there is no further opportunity for public comment. The forest districts are now reviewing objections and plan to release a final decision to be followed by the creation of OSV-use maps for each district, at which point the changes could be implemented by law.

Court Leve

“We won’t see the plans implemented this winter,” says Pacific Southwest Region Trail and Travel Management project leader Garrett Villanueva. “As far as beyond this winter, it is speculation when they will complete those plans. We do hope to complete the project and see the over-snow-vehicle maps by [the winter of] 2020.”

LTBMU is the latest forest service unit in the region to begin what’s being called Winter Recreation and Over-the-Snow Vehicle Winter Travel Management. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest district has not begun the public process to develop an OSV plan.

This proposed action is the first swing at a tenuous compromise between various groups including snowmobilers; non-motorized back-country travelers such as skiers, splitboarders and snowshoers; private landowners; environmental scientists and stewards; and more than a dozen government agencies. Consequently, it includes propositions aimed at balancing each party’s interest within this recreationally popular and biologically important geographic region. By law, the Forest Service project team considered numerous factors in its proposal, including protection of the environment and local wildlife, the history of recreation in the area and reports of disputes between motorized and human-powered travelers. LTBMU held three public meetings in 2016 to identify pressing issues and conflicting priorities for winter recreation and snow travel in the Tahoe Basin to develop the proposal.

The proposal contains potential changes that could modify up to 10,431 acres of forest, effectively limiting OSV use in the Tahoe Basin from 79,426 (51 percent) to 75,817 (49 percent) acres of the total 155,000 acres managed by the unit.

“There has been a lot of public outreach on this project,” said Sibr. “We took the comments we received essentially for the past 10 years since we started the forest plan revision process, including the public meetings in 2016, and used them to develop the proposed action. It’s sort of a long time coming and in the development, we had a lot of public and agency input.”

A Grand Compromise
Beginning from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, the proposed changes include a section above Crystal Bay, which abuts the south sides of a ridge connecting Mount Baldy, Rifle Peak and Rose Knob Peak, essentially extending the ban on OSVs in the Mount Rose Wilderness south to the boundaries of Incline Village, Nev.

“The wilderness boundary there is difficult to discern,” said Sibr. “This would provide a buffer for the neighborhoods in an area that is steep and difficult to access. It’s about minimizing impact to resources such as wildlife, botany and hydrology, as well as taking into account the social impact of snowmobile use on noise and neighboring properties.”

Many sledders (a colloquial term for snowmobilers) nevertheless believe lands nearby local communities should remain open for motorized snow travel. This includes Dennis Troy, the vocally active president of Sierra Snowmobile Foundation.

“When it’s right in your backyard, people are going to be there,” he says. “Once they take it away, we never get it back.”

In contrast, the snowmobile zone west of Mount Rose Highway would become officially open east of Third Creek from the hairpin turn/lookout to the popular winter recreation playgrounds situated high beneath Relay Peak and Tamarack Peak. According to the Forest Service, this expansion would provide connectivity to the area from south to north without having to cross the highway, which is a safety concern. Sections to the west of Third Creek, including Incline Lake and Incline Peak, would remain closed.

A 2,498-acre parcel along Chickadee Ridge between Mount Rose Highway and Diamond Peak ski area would be designated open to OSVs on odd days only. The Forest Service considered morning and afternoon openings on alternating weekends and other ideas but thought the even/odd balance could provide the most equal access to fresh powder throughout the season to both motorized and human-powered users.

“That area is of high value to both the snowmobile users, as well as the non-motorized users,” says Sibr. “There have been significant reports of conflicts that occur in that area, so we are looking for interesting ways to provide for recreation opportunities for each of the groups.”

In and around South Lake Tahoe, the biggest proposed change concerns Hell Hole, a swath of land between Fountain Place Road (Road 1201), Tucker Flat and Armstrong Pass. This natural wetland and watershed is the only place in the Basin outside of federally designated wilderness where the habitat of the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog has been detected. It also happens to be an area that is easy to access but challenging to safely ride. Snowmobilers tend to get stuck in the marsh surrounding the headwaters of Trout Creek.

“This is a really sensitive ecosystem with a unique botanical community,” said Sibr. “There has been some environmental damage from leaking, as well as the damage that occurs when we have to drag the vehicle out.”

In the proposal, a potential groomed road along the northeast perimeter of Hell Hole would remain open to facilitate through traffic that follows the 1201 beyond the intersection with Trout Creek.

Looking at the West Shore, the land abutting Desolation Wilderness would remain open to human-powered users only with the vast majority of space between Homewood and Brockway Summit staying OSV friendly. That is aside from one small, but important, band of contention that happens to be the only section of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passing through LTBMU holdings. In the remote reaches of Blackwood Canyon between Barker Peak and Twin Peaks, all areas within 500 feet of the PCT have been proposed for closure, except a single crossing at Barker Pass.

This specific proposition is already receiving critical feedback from the sled skiing community that uses snowmobiles to access far-flung skiing and snowboarding objectives difficult to access by non-motorized means such as telemark, alpine touring skis or splitboards.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Barker Pass and Blackwood Canyon and I have never seen a human-powered user in that area,” says Troy. “However, it is a wildly popular sled-ski area. So, what is the reasoning behind it?”

According to Sibr, the proximity of the PCT to Granite Chief Wilderness, as well as the geographic use of an obvious natural ridgeline for an OSV boundary, inspired this specific proposal. The PCT is a National Scenic Trail and is mandated by the National Trails System Act of 1968 to be non-motorized.

National forests in the region have taken varying approaches to this rule. Some, such as Plumas, Eldorado and Lassen have agreed to allow additional crossings and freedom of movement in more remote areas rarely accessed by human-powered users, while others such as Tahoe have shut down PCT access even in isolated corners such as Paradise Lake. How well the designated crossing are able to be identified and followed in the desolate, white landscape of a Sierra winter remains to be seen.

Something Lost, Something Gained?
The largest new area offered for snowmobiling in the proposal is a section above Glenbrook Bay covering the natural hollow between Deadman Point and Captain Pomin Rock west of Spooner Junction. In addition, Hartoonian Trails between Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek near several South Lake neighborhoods has also been suggested for opening, as well as the north side of Tahoe Mountain near Camp Richardson. Meanwhile, several small zones around Fallen Leaf Lake are offered in the proposal for closure. Many in the snowmobiling community fear the potential gains aren’t equal to the losses.

“A general thing I noticed is all the closures are over 8,000 feet and all the areas proposed to be opened are under 7,000,” said Troy. “What I’ve seen are high-priority snowmobile areas being shut down in lieu of low-priority areas being opened. In the Glenbrook area, there is no parking and people aren’t going to go downhill to where there’s less snow. I don’t get it.”

Troy is commenting on a trend in the proposal toward higher-elevation areas with preferred snow conditions such as Barker Pass, Mount Rose and Hell Hole being closed in exchange for the opening of lower areas closer to lake level.

According to Sibr, this is not the approach LTBMU is taking. It simply comes down to how each zone of land is affected by the opposing priorities of countless interests. The Forest Service is looking for comments to help guide its next steps.

“On all of the decisions it is a balance between use on the ground, research concerns, policy guidelines, as well as conflicts that occur in any given location,” she says. “There were some areas we had to look at because we received comment. In some areas we were prompted to close OSV use and in others open OSV use because there were no other concerns and we are meeting minimization criteria for impact. It’s important to note that part of our criteria is not closing areas to OSV use unless there is some reason to do so and to open OSV use when there is not another concern in the area.”

How Long is Winter?
In addition to a 12-inch snow minimum and barring use of snowmobiles on single private lots smaller than 2 acres, one hot-button issue in the LTBMU proposal is only allowing OSV use from Nov. 1 to April 15. Snowmobiles would not be allowed to access any areas within the Basin after April 15.

“Travel management rules require us to designate an open period,” said Sibr. “We thought about what would be an appropriate date in both the good snow years and the bad snow years, as well as some consideration for protection for the native and nesting species that happens in the spring. There has to be a compromise in those dates in order to provide for those protections of wildlife, but also provide as much time as we can for OSV riding.”

This is a departure from the example set by the other national forest districts in the region, some of which considered seasonal closures as alternatives in specific areas, but not as an overall directive.

“I think it is safe to say that we have applied the season-of-use as a minimization for certain impacts in this proposed action in a little different manner than some of the other forests,” said Sibr. “The public has the opportunity to comment on what we have proposed and tell us why a different option might be better.”

So far, this proposition isn’t sitting well with snowmobilers who recently experienced a winter that went well into June with the 12-foot snowbanks alongside Mount Rose Highway to prove it.

“I think one could argue there was more than enough snow after April 15 to protect resources on the ground,” says Troy. “Limiting the season is something we are adamantly arguing against. The only certainty about Tahoe winters is they are uncertain.”

Access to winter trails
In an idea welcome to both motorized and human-powered users, the LTBMU proposal calls for additional investment in groomed trails and winter parking in the region. Some areas for proposed groomed OSV trails include Blackwood Canyon Road, Watson Creek and Granlibakken in Tahoe City; Fallen Leaf Lake; Fountain Place Road and Old Mount Rose Highway. Locations deemed suitable for non-motorized groomed trails include Taylor Creek, Rabe Meadow, Echo Lake Road and Meeks Meadow.

As there are currently only two Sno-Parks operated by the State of California within the Tahoe Basin (at Fallen Leaf Lake and Blackwood Canyon), this plan proposes expanding parking at Spring Creek Tract from eight to 20 spaces and Fountain Place Road from 30 to 40 spaces. It also designates new sites suitable for snow play on the west side of Spooner Junction and nearby Sawmill Pond in South Lake Tahoe.

“No one is going to disagree that all user groups need more parking,” says Troy. “Until now, not a single forest has put together an enhancement except for Stanislaus, who proposed putting in seasonal creek crossings and bridges.”

However, many including David Reichel, president of Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, doesn’t think this plan goes nearly far enough to address the pressing needs of a growing winter recreation area.

“We are glad LTBMU recognizes that parking opportunities are the same or decreased, but their solution is not adequate,” he says. “Are there even eight spaces at Spring Creek? If it’s by the gate, I’ve never seen them. Even so, there’s less than half of what there used to be.”

Spring Creek Tract is the traditional back-country access point for the coveted ascent and descent of Mount Tallac. Over a decade ago, Caltrans closed a gate barring winter travelers from the plentiful spaces near the trailhead. So far, the gate hasn’t been reopened and the spaces have not been replaced by the road head.

“It’s one of the biggest [parking] ticket areas in the Basin and we haven’t had any meaningful discussion about it,” says Reichel. “Now I park and walk on pavement for a mile before putting on my skis. This is not a step forward. It’s cementing a step backward.”

Parking at several other popular back-country ski trailheads along the West Shore including Jake’s Peak, Bliss Peak and Rubicon Peak was reduced during improvements done several years ago to Highway 89. Those improvements were aimed at keeping sediment from flowing into Lake Tahoe from roadways. In March 2018, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) began working with more than 20 agencies on the SR 89 Recreation Corridor Management Plan to improve safety, expand travel choices, enhance visitor experience, protect the environment and promote economic vitality on the West Shore. According to TRPA, a draft plan is expected to be released for public comment during the first quarter of 2020.

“I don’t think they’re just going to kill off skiing on the West Shore, but so far there’s been a complete failure to adequately address additional winter parking,” says Reichel. “I would certainly love to see some year-round parking at all these popular recreation destinations and year-round public transportation. It’d be nice to go skiing in January and not worry about parking. We’re pretty disappointed in the first draft of this [proposed action] because it does not improve back-country skiing in any way. There are multiple things they could do and they did not propose any of them.”

Make Your Voice Heard
To review the project and make official comments, visit https://bit.ly/369LNrE. Click on “Comment/Object on Project” on the right side. Comments may be submitted in person or by mail to: LTBMU, 35 College Drive, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150.