Latest snowmobile debate centers on small California road
A small stretch of road in the eastern Sierra is the latest flashpoint in a mounting conflict between snowmobilers and cross country skiers battling over access to the same snowy landscape.
A compromise crafted by the U.S. Forest Service over use of Forestdale Creek Road in rural Alpine County fell apart earlier this month.
Now, those involved say the dispute over snowmobile use in the busy winter recreation area south of Lake Tahoe likely will be decided in federal court, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported Monday.
Snowmobilers say they’re determined not to give up any more land.
“Right now the snowmobile community is taking a stand that we don’t want any more closures. We’re tired of losing our areas,” said Michele Kruger, president of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Club.
“We’re looking at a much bigger picture here. It’s not just Forestdale.”
The debate is increasingly common across the West as more people crowd onto public land pursuing activities not always compatible.
In Alpine County, the dispute dates back nearly a decade, when the Forest Service was updating management strategies for the Forestdale Creek area in Hope Valley about 25 miles south of Lake Tahoe.
The area, described in a lawsuit as offering “some of the highest-quality backcountry skiing in the Lake Tahoe region,” was also becoming increasingly popular to snowmobilers.
Critics argued Forestdale Creek Road and surrounding land, on the boundaries of Mokelumne Wilderness, should be closed to snowmobile use. Forest Service officials declined, sparking years of debate and two unsuccessful appeals of the government’s position.
In 1997, the Sierra Club and Friends of Hope Valley sued the Forest Service in U.S. District Court. That suit was eventually settled, but environmentalists remained dissatisfied with resulting policy that allowed continued snowmobile use across much of the area.
Snowmobilers consider the road, which is owned by Alpine County, critical because it provides access to the nearby Blue Lakes area — a prime snowmobile destination — during times of low snow cover.
Environmentalists contend the Forest Service did not adequately examine alternatives that might have left the road open to snowmobiles but prohibit them on federal land east of the road. They raised that argument in a second lawsuit filed last year.
In an attempt to negotiate a compromise, the Forest Service proposed Alpine County close the road when there was sufficient snow to allow access to Blue Lakes by another route. The Forest Service would do the same with adjoining land.
Continued use of the road by snowmobiles would be permitted when there was insufficient snow to access Blue Lakes via the alternate route.
The plan was to be for this winter only, staying the lawsuit while the Forest Service and the opposing groups considered a regional winter recreation plan for Alpine County.
But the proposal collapsed Dec. 4 before the Alpine County Board of Supervisors under the opposition of Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Club members who argued they’ve already lost too much land for their sport.
“I just thought this was a breather we could take for one season” while parties worked on a broader recreation strategy, said Alpine County Supervisor Herman Zellmer, who was unable to convince colleagues to support the compromise.
Now, Zellmer said, the dispute appears steered for the courtroom.
“This just goes on and on,” Zellmer said. “It’s a real touchy issue.”
Debbi Waldear, president of Friends of Hope Valley, sees no room for snowmobiles in the Forestdale Creek area — an area she believes should be set aside for skiing, snowshoeing and other quiet winter sports.
“Cross country skiers go there because they’re looking for solitude and silence and snowmobiles are offensive,” Waldear said. “People are back there for a wilderness experience and those machines change that whole experience.”
Patty Brissenden, a founder of Friends of Hope Valley and owner of Sorensen’s Resort, said she supported the compromise proposal.
“We wanted to work something out,” she said. “Now this leaves us going back to court.”
Many snowmobilers are concerned that a ban in the Forestdale Creek area would lead to similar crackdowns elsewhere. They point to Tahoe Meadows on the Mount Rose Highway west of Reno, where this winter the Forest Service closed most of the area to the machines after an organized campaign by skiers.
“We’re challenged to provide the greatest good for the greatest number and that’s difficult when there’s these two groups that don’t want to share,” said Larry Randall, a Forest Service recreation official.
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