Winter Travel Management
Frequently Asked Questions
The following questions and answers are in regard to the Forest Service winter travel management process underway in the Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado and Stanislaus national forests. This process was undertaken in part as a result of two separate lawsuits.
These FAQS are arranged in three sections, dealing with 1. The winter travel management process itself, 2. The lawsuit brought by Snowlands, et al., that partly caused this review and 3. The lawsuit brought by Winter Wildlands Alliance that changed the winter travel management rule and also partly caused this review.
Winter Travel Management
Q. What is your objective?
A. Snowlands’ objective is to improve opportunities for non-motorized backcountry winter recreation.
Q. Do you seek to end the sport of snowmobiling in California?
A. No. Snowlands recognizes snowmobiling as a popular sport that brings significant tourism to local communities, and we do not want to diminish that economic benefit. We believe the Forest Service can manage winter recreation to provide more ski and snowshoe opportunity without significantly impacting snowmobile recreation.
Q. Do you seek to ban cross-country travel on snowmobiles and confine snowmobiles to designated routes?
A. No. Some areas should be closed to OSVs in order to allow non-motorized users to obtain the recreational experience they desire or to protect species, habitats, watersheds, or other environments. In other areas, OSVs should be restricted to designated routes or in other ways. We expect many if not most current areas in which cross-country snowmobile travel is allowed will remain unchanged. There should be a fair balance of recreational opportunity for both non-motorized and motorized users.
Q. How can you complain about a “fair balance of recreational opportunity” when all the snowmobile areas and trails are also open to skiers and snowshoers?
A. Because snowmobiles are high-impact vehicles that travel fast and bring substantial noise and pollution into off-road areas. They thereby substantially impact the recreational experience sought by some non-motorized users. In areas where there is heavy snowmobile use, skiers and snowshoers are displaced from the area – it becomes unsuitable for the recreation experience they desire. This zoning of uses is common in management of public spaces. High impact uses or uses that conflict with other activities are restricted in the places where these other activities are to be encouraged. There are dozens if not hundreds of situations where our society imposes similar zoning restrictions.
Q. What are the impacts of snowmobiles that are so offensive to non-motorized users?
A. The primary impacts are noise, exhaust emissions that can create a toxic cloud of unhealthy air at heavily-used locations locations, and disproportionate consumption of powder snow. The noise and emissions of snowmobiles might be appropriate for a roadway environment, but when they occur throughout the forest they substantially disrupt the experience sought by many non-motorized users. Other impacts include rutting of the landscape (especially in spring thaw/freeze conditions) and safety concerns from sharing trails or areas with fast-moving vehicles. These impacts are discussed further in Snowlands’ paper “Analyzing Snowmobile Impacts to Other Recreation Users.”
Q. What do you mean by “disproportionate consumption of powder snow?”
A. Some users – including snowmobile riders, skiers, and snowboarders – primarily seek the experience of riding through untracked powder snow – the deeper the better. These users consume powder snow. After the powder is tracked up, the powder experience is gone. Because of their speed and power and the practice of high-marking (turning on a slope), snowmobiles can track up the snowscape much faster than a skier or snowshoer. Skiers and snowboarders can spend a couple of hours climbing to ski a slope and be satisfied with only one or two runs. Powder snow is a precious commodity to them and they simply cannot compete with snowmobiles in chasing it.
Q. Why don’t skiers just ski in the Wilderness areas that are already closed to snowmobiles?
A. Many designated Wilderness areas are difficult to access in the winter. Even the closest sections of some Wilderness areas are several miles from the nearest winter trailhead, which puts such Wilderness out of reach of the average backcountry skier.
Q. What changes do you seek?
A. Snowlands believes that limited areas that are popular with skiers, snowboarders and/or snowshoers should be totally closed to snowmobiles. In other areas, closures and restrictions should be applied so that skiers and snowshoers can have a wilderness-like experience. In other areas, more limited restrictions should be applied so that there can be truly shared use.
Q. What types of restrictions do you seek?
A. We seek imposition of the least amount of restriction in an area that will provide a fair balance of recreational opportunity. Possible restrictions (other than complete closure) include restricting snowmobiles to designated routes; limiting the types of vehicles that may be used based on noise, emissions or other BAT Restrictions (see below for explanation); and limiting motorized use to alternate days or other temporal restrictions.
Q. Shouldn’t there then be areas open to snowmobilers but closed to skiers and snowshoers?
A. There should be such restrictions where the presence of non-motorized users significantly detracts from the recreational experience sought by snowmobile riders. Because skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers have such a low impact, we are not aware of any place where such a restriction should be imposed, but we are open to the possibility of such restrictions where truly warranted.
Q. Who can comment on this process?
A. Anyone is allowed to comment in the winter travel management process. The Forest Service has already held several public meetings and more will be scheduled. Comments can also be submitted by mail or email. Please go to individual Forest Service websites for more information.
Q. What comments will Snowlands be submitting?
A. Snowlands will be submitting a proposed comprehensive winter travel management alternative to each forest during the scoping period. (The scoping period is the initial formal stage of each process.) We will publicly share each of these proposed alternatives on our website www.snowlands.org. Under the settlement agreement, the Forest Service has agreed to consider each such proposed alternative, but it may adopt or reject such alternative to the same extent as it may adopt or reject any proposal made by any member of the public.
Q. What will be the outcome of the process?
A. The process will result in a Decision by each of the five forests that will likely be in the form of a Winter Travel Recreation Guide that shows where OSV use is allowed, restricted, or prohibited.
Q. Will the Decisions close any new areas to snowmobiling?
A. The Decisions may close areas that are now open or open areas that are now closed. However, Wilderness areas are closed to mechanized vehicles by federal law and will not be affected by this review.
Q. Will the Decisions affect the grooming of snowmobile trails?
A. The Decisions may designate which trails will be eligible for grooming.
Q. When will the Decisions be finalized?
A. The schedule for each of the forests is different, but the entire process for the five forests is expected to take 3 to 4 years.
Q. What is a BAT Restriction?
A. BAT stands for “best available technology”. It refers to snowmobiles with engines that produce significantly less noise and emissions than ordinary two-stroke engines. BAT restrictions have been successfully imposed in Yellowstone National Park to reduce snowmobile noise and air pollution while allowing snowmobiling to continue. BAT restrictions significantly reduce some of the impacts of snowmobiles. Some skiers and snowshoers would gladly share trails with BAT snowmobiles and consider their impact to be very different than the loud noise and persistent exhaust of an older technology machine.
Q. Does the Forest Service have authority to impose BAT Restrictions?
A. Yes. Winter travel management occurs under the general provisions of wheeled travel management, and the Forest Service has consistently recognized its authority to distinguish between types of vehicles. The travel management regulations specifically provide that the Forest Service shall take into account “compatibility of motor vehicle use with existing conditions in populated areas, taking into account sound, emissions, and other factors.” 36 CFR 212.55(b)(5).
Q. Shouldn’t the State or the EPA manage snowmobile noise and emissions instead of the Forest Service?
A. Yes, the State and the EPA should do a better job of managing snowmobile noise and emissions. Snowmobiles are some of the noisiest and most polluting recreation vehicles in use today, and they bring this noise deep into off-road environments. However, even with greater restrictions on snowmobiles in general, BAT restrictions are still important. General standards must accodomodate a variety of uses, and the type of snowmobile that is needed to engage in search and rescue or other extreme operations is different than the type of vehicle suitable for touring. BAT Restrictions should be applied taking into account the type of use in an area and the extent an area is suitable for managed shared use. This is similar to the distinctions among vehicle types applied in wheeled vehicle management, though the issues are different.
Q. Hasn’t the State of California recently tightened the limits on snowmobile noise and exhaust?
A. No. The State of California has recently imposed new restrictions on evaporative emissions from hoses and fittings in small engines. The State of California has not imposed new restrictions on snowmobile noise or emissions.
Snowlands’ Lawsuit Background
Q. Why are the five National Forests doing a separate plan for snowmobiling?
A. The Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado and Stanislaus national forests are engaging in winter travel management as is required under new Forest Service regulations. As part of this process, the forests are also reviewing the impacts of the State’s snowmobile trail grooming program. The review of these impacts is required under the terms of the settlement of a lawsuit. As they deal with manyof the same issues, the Forest Service determined it would be most efficient to engage in both reviews at the same time, under a revised timetable agreed to by the other parties to the settlement.
Q. Who were the plaintiffs in the lawsuit?
A. Snowlands Network, Winter Wildlands Alliance, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Q. What was the lawsuit about?
A. The plaintiffs had sued Region 5 of the Forest Service alleging that the Forest service had not performed adequate environmental review of the impacts of the California snowmobile trail grooming program, that grooms about 1,700 miles of snowmobile trails in eleven national forests. To a large extent, the Forest Service had conducted only a cursory review of the program under a Categorical Exclusion.
Q. Why are only five forests currently undertaking winter travel management?
A. The Forest Service negotiated the settlement to require an immediate review only in these five forests.
Q. Will the six other forests also be reviewing snowmobile recreation?
A. Under the revised national winter travel management rule, the six other forests named in the lawsuit (Klamath, Modoc, Shasta-Trinity, Sequoia, Sierra and Inyo), must also review and/or adopt winter travel management plans. A timetable for such reviews has not been announced and such reviews may not commence for several years.
Q. Why is the Forest Service redoing an environmental review that has already been done?
A. To a large extent, the Forest Service had been using Categorical Exclusions to excuse an environmental review of the impacts of the snowmobile trail grooming program, so, to a large extent, the review had not been done. In some cases, there was an old environmental assessment that did not address current use and impacts.
Q. Do the plaintiffs have the right to approve the Decisions to be issued in the winter travel management process?
A. No. The Forest Service and the plaintiffs have agreed that doing the analysis and considering the plaintiffs’ proposed alternative are sufficient to settle the lawsuit. If the plaintiffs or anybody else objects to the Decisions issued, the normal recourses are available to them.
Q. Were the plaintiffs awarded any money as part of the settlement?
A. The Forest Service agreed to pay $15,000 of attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs, which has been paid. Plaintiffs sought and received no monetary recovery from the lawsuit settlement.
WWA Lawsuit Background
Q. What was this lawsuit?
A. This lawsuit was brought by Winter Wildlands Alliance in federal court in Boise, Idaho. WWA alleged that the Forest Service travel management rule did not adequately address snowmobile use, by allowing Forest Service discretionary management of over-snow-vehicles.
Q. What happened?
A. The federal Court agreed with WWA that the federal rule needed to be changed, to make management of over-snow vehicles mandatory.
Q. So what is happening now?
A. The Forest Service is revising its travel management rule to require the national forests to manage their snowmobile recreation, if they have significant snowmobile recreation. Accordingly, all forests with significant over-snow recreation will undertake a winter travel management process, unless they have already done so in a manner that satisfies the new rule.
Q. Has the new rule been published?
A draft rule was published for comment and the final rule is expected to be issued soon.
Q. Why are the five forests undertaking the travel management process before the rule is final?
A. Because the basic requirements of the rule are established by the Court order, and the Forest Service deemed it most efficient to undertake the winter travel management process together with the review required by the settlement in the Snowlands litigation. The plaintiffs agreed to amend the settlement agreement to give the Forest Service more time to be able to complete both reviews at once.