Objectives in the
Winter Travel Management Process

Stanislaus, Eldorado, Tahoe, Plumas and Lassen National Forests
December 2014

1. Create a Fair Balance of Recreational Opportunity

Snowmobile (OSV) recreation impacts and displaces nonmotorized recreation. These impacts have substantially increased over the last 25 years, due to growth in population, changes in snowmobile technology providing them greater power and range, and substantial growth in demand for nonmotorized winter recreation. Backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and Nordic skate skiing are each sports that barely existed 30 years ago (ten years ago in the case of snowshoeing!) and are now highly popular. This growth has increased conflict and created the need for greater restrictions on snowmobile recreation, as well as the need for greater access for all backcountry winter sports.

2. Create Opportunities for Nonmotorized Winter Users to Have a Wilderness-like Experience

In winter, much of the federally-designated Wilderness is inaccessible due to its distance from winter trailheads. Thus, the role of Wilderness in serving the recreational needs of the nonmotorized visitor is substantially different in winter than in summer. However, it is still very important to many users to be able to obtain a wilderness-like experience in winter, and there is more than enough forest land in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade Range to accommodate this demand as well as the demand for other types of recreation, including snowmobiles. The Forest Service needs to take into account this critical difference between winter and summer recreation in the winter travel management process.

3. Create a Framework that Will Nurture Growth in Ski Tourism

As compared to other areas of the West, California stands out as having relatively little Nordic ski tourism: tourism driven by skiers and snowshoers wanting groomed trails. Community ski areas have been highly successful throughout the west. Many areas of the West, such as the Sawtooths, the Wasatch and the central Cascades have more miles of publicly available groomed Nordic track (i.e., available for free, for a suggested donation, or for a modest access fee) than can be found in the Sierra Nevada, and substantially greater Nordic tourism.

We believe this circumstance – unfortunate for the gateway communities in the Sierra Nevada – is due to a variety of factors, some fortuitous, and does not reflect any deficiency in the natural recreation opportunity in California, even with our warmer-trending winters. Winter travel management needs to address areas of existing conflict but also needs to set the framework whereby California can obtain its fair share of Nordic ski tourism, for the benefit of both local economic communities and local population users. The winter travel management process should lay a foundation for growth in such recreation and not perpetuate conditions that have discouraged such growth. Due to the amount of land in the Sierra Nevada and the Southern Cascades, this objective can be met while fully preserving existing snowmobile tourism and opportunity.

4. Separate Motorized and Nonmotorized Use

This objective is included in the foregoing three objectives but merits separate focus. A major complaint of nonmotorized users is the noise and toxic emissions concentrated at trailheads and other heavily used locations. The creation of nonmotorized trailheads and trails, even when the adjacent areas are shared by motorized users, substantially enhances the nonmotorized experience. Where areas can be accessed through multiple trailheads, certain trailheads should be designated for nonmotorized use only.

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In managing for the above objectives, land and community managers should recognize that there are three relatively distinct kinds of experience sought by backcountry skiers and snowshoers. Snowmobile activity can also be meaningfully analyzed in the framework of these three activities. The winter travel management process needs to create a fair balance of opportunity for each type of activity.

A. Trail Touring

When engaging in the trail touring activity, users seek designated trails, preferably groomed, with moderate climbs and descents. Travelling fast and working on technique are important aspects of the experience. Users are often more concerned about the quality of the trails than obtaining a wilderness-like experience. Safety issues (as well as other snowmobile impacts) effectively preclude shared use of the more popular groomed trails. For snowmobile users, trail touring is often a family activity, and can be readily enjoyed using cleaner and quieter snowmobiles.

While grooming of trails requires funding, which is outside the scope of the travel management process, the process should create the framework and conditions where such funding is encouraged, rather than discouraged.

Nordic striding skiers and snowshoers do not need groomed trails in order to engage in the trail touring activity. What they do seek are clearly-marked and easy to follow trails, preferably with scenic value. The unplowed forest roads provide the best variety of such trails, but most of these roads are dominated by snowmobile use with snowmobile grooming provided by State funds. These routes are also popular with skiers and snowshoers.

It needs to be recognized that the nonmotorized users are not free-loading on motorized funds. First, the funds are provided through a State funding directive, rather than directly financed from user fees. More importantly, the grooming is not the critical aspect of these routes; the wide roadbed, gradual grades, and scenic routing are the critical aspect. A fair balance of these unplowed roads need to be protected for nonmotorized use, even if that results in a loss of grooming.

B. Backcountry Exploring

When engaging in the exploring activity, users seek a wilderness-like experience. In areas where snowmobile use is infrequent, shared use is possible, in particular with the imposition of BAT standards. (Best Available Technology standards limit motorized use to cleaner and quieter machines.) In areas where snowmobile activity is more than infrequent, there needs to be complete separation of activities in order for the nonmotorized user to obtain a wilderness-like experience.

While many snowmobile riders also may enjoy backcountry exploring, a half-hour encounter with a snowmobile by a non-motorized user far from the trailhead can significantly impact the nonmotorized experience of enjoying natural soundscapes and clean air. (While, on the contrary, there is little impact to the snowmobile user from sharing such space with skiers and snowshoers, who generally have a much narrower range, cover far less territory and are clean and quiet.) The winter travel management process needs to acknowledge that federally-designated Wilderness areas are generally inaccessible to day users in winter. Skiers and snowshoers seeking a wilderness-like experience in winter must be able to do so from available winter trailheads, and generally these trailheads are in motorized areas. This needs to change, through the creation of more nonmotorized areas adjoining winter trailheads.

 C. Alpine Adventure

In recent years, with the advent of improved backcountry ski and snowboard equipment, chasing powder on steeper backcountry slopes has become highly popular in California as elsewhere. Some snowmobile riders also chase powder, seeking to highmark steep slopes. Conflicts between motorized and non-motorized “alpine adventure” recreation rarely allow for any degree of shared use. This is due to safety issues, noise issues, clean air issues and also, perhaps most significantly, the substantially disproportionate impact of each use in consuming (shredding) powder snow.

Due to its power and speed, a single snowmobile can consume (shred) a powder-covered slope that otherwise would provide recreational opportunity for a hundred skiers. In chasing powder, skiers and snowshoers cannot compete with snowmobiles. Where snowmobile activity is frequent, skiers are completely displaced from areas open to snowmobiles.

With regard to protecting the “alpine adventure” activity, primary factors for consideration are (i) relative demographics, e.g. the relative demand for each type of activity, (ii) issues of sustainability and (iii) the fact that snowmobile riders can easily access slopes that are several miles from the winter trailhead, while skiers and splitboarders cannot.

It is fact that far more skiers and snowshoers than snowmobiles can be accommodated on one slope. It is also fact that demand for nonmotorized backcountry downhill recreation exceeds demand for snowmobile downhill recreation, very substantially in California. These demographics and trends have been repeatedly acknowledged in Forest Service assessments of winter recreation demand in California. We believe the current designation of nonmotorized backcountry downhill recreation areas is significantly out of balance with what is necessary and appropriate to meet current demand and provide sustainability for future growth.