Winter Travel Management

For several years, Snowlands Network has advocated that national forests in California conduct winter travel management as part of their land management plans. As a result of two lawsuits, the United States Forest Service has now undertaken winter travel management on five California forests.

This winter travel management will be conducted under a revised “subpart C” rule.  Subpart C is the section of the 2005 Travel Management Rule that was the subject of one of the lawsuit and that previously had exempted over-snow travel from the travel management requirements. A lawsuit by Winter Wildlands, successfully challenged this exemption.

Snowlands Network, Winter Wildands Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity had separately sued the Forest Service in California with regard to its participation in the State’s snowmobile trail grooming program without full review of the impacts of such program under the National Environmental Policy Act.  In a settlement of that lawsuit, the Forest Service agreed to review the impacts of the State’s grooming program on five forests. Such review is being undertaken concurrently with full winter travel management planning under the new subpart C rule.

The five forests are the Eldorado, Stanislaus, Tahoe, Plumas and Lassen.  Separately, in response to Snowlands’ urging, the Forest Service has also started winter travel management on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Together, these six forests encompass the central and northern Sierra Nevada and the far southern Cascades.  These six forests will be the first forests to conduct winter travel management under the new subpart C rule, and their efforts will be followed by all other forests that have significant over-snow recreation.

Winter travel management is the goal Snowlands has sought for years.  The end result will shape backcountry winter recreation for the foreseeable future, and will likely be the only time in the next twenty years that the Forest Service will consider closing lands to snowmobiles.  It is critical that non-motorized users have their voices heard in this process, and Snowlands is leading this effort.  Your participation is critical as well.

Pursuant to the settlement, Snowlands Network, et al. gained the right to submit an alternative proposal for winter travel management that the Forest Service must consider in its review. 

All five forests have now entered the scoping phase by publishing a Notice of Intent and Proposed Action for Over Snow Vehicle Use Designation. All five forests have held public meetings where they discussed the Proposed Actions, the issues in doing OSV Use Designation, and, in most cases, presenting a set of alternative for implementation of the plan.

Lassen NF, as the first out of the gate, issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on January 25, 2016, followed by a Record of Decision and a Final Environmental Impact Statement on Augest 22, 2016. See the Lassen page on this web site for details.

A statement of Snowlands Network objectives
in the winter travel management process

This paper outlines Snowlands’ objectives to promote and increase non-motorized recreation opportunity with little impact on most existing over-snow motorized recreation.  Our position will not only better serve the public who recreates on public lands, but also benefit the economies of many local communities that increasingly depend on recreational tourism.

A framework for analyzing
OSV impacts to non-motorized recreation

This framework discusses snowmobile impacts and discusses a framework for understanding user interests and user conflicts.  The framework analyzes three activities engaged in by both non-motorized users (skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers) and snowmobile riders:

  • Trail Touring
  • Backcountry Exploring
  • Alpine

Future position and comment papers will debunk certain misrepresentations commonly made by advocates for increased motorized recreation, outline issues and impacts to be considered in the winter travel management process and detail Snowlands’ proposed alternatives for each of the forests.  We will post these papers here as they are published.

Management restrictions

A variety of management restrictions can be employed to address specific conflicts in the winter travel management process.  The use of a variety of restrictions may be initially confusing, but allows the Forest Service to minimize conflicts while imposing the least set of restrictions. We discuss the general types of restrictions below and through the menu on the left separately discuss unique considerations pertinent to each forest.

Complete closure

Complete closure of areas to motorized use is the most restrictive measure, but necessary to the backcountry touring and alpine types of activities in areas that may develop a modest or high degree of use.  In some cases, a designated snowmobile route may be permitted through such an area.

Prohibition of OSV cross-country travel

Prohibition of OSV cross-country travel; i.e. restriction of OSVs to designated routes, is appropriate to separate motorized and non-motorized uses where the primary motorized activity is Trail Touring. Non-motorized users are not similarly restricted to designated routes because they do not have the same level of impact as motorized users.

BAT restrictions

BAT restrictions restricts motorized use to vehicles employing Best Available Technology.

BAT snowmobiles have significantly lower impacts.  They emit lesser amounts of toxic pollutants, including noise.  BAT machines are well-suited to trail touring and backcountry exploring activities but generally lack the ultra-high power to weight ratios necessary for aggressive Slope Riding. 

In particular,  BAT restrictions can significantly reduce conflicts in areas used by both motorized and non-motorized users for Trail Touring.  BAT restrictions also reduce general environmental impacts of snowmobiles and are also important for areas of increased environmental sensitivity.

BAT restrictions have been used successfully to reduce snowmobile impacts in Yellowstone National Park.  There is precedent for the Forest Service to distinguish between vehicles based on emissions, noise and power in extensive Forest Service regulations restricting watercraft. There is also precedent for distinguishing between 2-stroke and 4-stroke engines in the ban on older technology personal watercraft established by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Temporal Restrictions

Shared use of forest lands can also be facilitated by limiting the period in which motorized use can occur.  Such restrictions can be applied on a day of the week basis or otherwise. In the Chugach National Forest, snowmobile use is managed through alternative year restrictions. Temporal restrictions can be crafted in many ways and have been successful in facilitating many types of shared use in popular areas.

Separate trailheads

Separate trailheads for motorized and non-motorized users reduces some impacts of OSVs and facilitates shared use in areas where some type of shared use is necessary, in particular where both sets of users share an extensive trail network.

Separate trails

Separate trails for non-motorized use has minimal impact in reducing conflicts unless OSV riders are also restricted to designated routes.  It is the minimal restriction necessary in areas of infrequent use, where shared use is feasible without greater restrictions.

Ideas with regard to specific alternatives that utilize some or all of these techniques in each of the national forests are being developed.

Frequently Asked Questions

For questions and answers about the lawsuit and the winter travel management process, click here.