SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Winter sports can be a divisive issue. There are skiers and snowboarders, freestylers and racers, visitors and locals. But perhaps no two groups are as sharply divided as snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
On one hand you have the purists, skiers and snowshoers who want to keep motorized vehicles off the trails. On the other, you have snowmobilers who say that their sport is just as valid as the quieter pastimes and don’t want limits on the terrain they can ride.
The current issue concerns the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s Forest Plan update, and whether the plan will recommend other areas in the basin for a wilderness designation. If more wilderness is approved — a lengthy decision that ultimately only the U.S. Congress can make — the Dardanelles and Freel roadless areas could become off-limits to snowmobilers and mountain bikers.
Members of the Tahoe Sierra Snowmobile Club met Tuesday to discuss the plan and the potential restrictions with two Forest Service representatives. The meeting marks a first step toward real organization for the group, TSSC member and event organizer Hanna Bernard said.
“I think we’ve let things happen because we haven’t been organized in the past. There has been effort and there have been groups working really, really hard, but we have not reached out to every single snowmobiler in town the way we’re trying to do this time,” Bernard said.
More than 50 people gathered at Tep’s Villa Roma restaurant to learn more about the Forest Plan, voice their concern regarding closures to motorized vehicles, and take advantage of the public comment period that will close at the end of August.
The updated plan, which has been in the works since 2004, is currently in its final 90-day public comment period. According to USFS spokeswoman Cheva Heck, the agency welcomes all community input in the form of letters and emails. At the moment, there are four alternatives under review, with the final environmental document slated to come out by the end of this year.
When LTBMU Deputy Forest Supervisor Jeff Marsolais and Denise Downie, co-leader on the document’s planning team, arrived at the meeting, they were there to honor the agency’s commitment to listen to the public. In USFS uniforms, the two stood out among a crowd that hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the organization.
“We’re not very inconspicuous back here, are we?” Marsolais joked as he stepped in front of the audience.
Most of the comments directed at Marsolais and Downie concerned past trail closures to snowmobiles, the threat of more restrictions to come and what many at the meeting perceived as an unresponsiveness to the voices of South Lake Tahoe residents.
Marsolais insisted that the Forest Plan does take feedback into account and was developed with a variety of interests in mind.
“Folks are on different sides of the fence. When you look at what we’ve presented here in terms of the draft Forest Plan, particularly regarding snowmobiling, what we’re trying to do is represent the range,” Marsolais said. “We’ve developed a series of alternatives that in our mind represents the range of issues that we’ve heard all the way along through public scoping.”
Alternatives A through D represent a variety of options, from maintaining the status quo to augmenting developed recreation opportunities by 5 to 15 percent to recommending thousands of acres of new wilderness areas.
To some, like Snowlands Network President Gail Ferrell, that range may not represent enough.
Snowlands, an organization founded in 2001 to protect opportunities for human-powered winter recreation like cross county skiing and snowshoeing, has 500 members who hail from Western Nevada to the Bay Area, all united by a passion for nonmotorized winter activities.
“We want them to address snowmobile impacts. Snowmobiles, because they’re motorized, have impacts on the environment. It has wildlife impacts, habitat impacts, bear impacts. And there are impacts on fellow forest users,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell said she would like to see the Forest Service expand winter recreation opportunities for skiers and hikers where they can enjoy the wilderness without the accompaniment of a motor.
But for the riders at Tuesday’s meeting, snowmobiling is no less valid a sport than skiing, and many expressed concerns that rideable areas might continue to shrink because of a lack of organization.
“The other side is organized. It takes every single one of you push as hard as you can or you will lose your place to ride. The other side assumes they are the guardian of the environment, that you don’t care about the environment. That’s not true, because you all live here because of it,” Leader of the Strategic Marketing Group Carl Ribaudo said at the snowmobilers’ meeting.
No land management plan will come easily, Marsolais said. The number of recreationists has grown, with 1.4 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association website. The National Sporting Goods Association reported 2.26 million cross country skiers nationwide in its 2011 annual sports participation report.
“There’s no easy land management decision left in this county. Everything comes with trade-offs. It will be based on science, it will be based on public comment, it will be based on principals and values,” Marsolais said.