Tahoe U.S. Forest Service seeking comment on winter backcountry policy | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe U.S. Forest Service seeking comment on winter backcountry policy

Sebastian Foltz
Backcountry and cross-country skiers make their way to Round Lake during a touring trip this winter. The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is hosting a series of public workshops to accept comments regarding motorized and non-motorized backcountry winter travel. The agency plans to explore potential revisions to current policy later this year.
Courtesy Daniel Cressy / U.S. Forest Service |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — While there may not be concrete numbers tracking usage, there’s little question that backcountry travel is on the rise in mountain ranges across the U.S. and Canada. Anecdotally, the evidence is clear. Rangers and backcountry users report trailhead parking lots that are more consistently full while ski and snowboard tracks are increasingly visible on slopes following storms.

From a retail standpoint, evidence of increased interest is more tangible. Snow Sports Industries America, the trade association that tracks ski and snowboard business trends, annually reports that backcountry gear is among the fastest growing areas of the market. The gear has also become lighter and more affordable; and technology — from skis to snowmobiles — has drastically improved.

But while technology and demand has evolved, U.S. Forest Service winter policy in the Tahoe Basin has remained largely unchanged since the mid-1970s. It is a topic that the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) began to address through the first, in a series of three, public comment workshops to discuss motorized and non-motorized winter travel. The department’s goal is to create a revised policy draft by the fall of 2016.

“This project is intended to be a comprehensive winter recreation planning effort,” forest supervisor Jeff Marsolais said in a recent news release.

Just what changes come of it remains to be seen. Officials with the Forest Service said it will depend on input. Existing guidelines have been renewed regularly through a series of temporary forest orders, which will remain in place through next winter. Any approved changes likely would not go into effect until the winter of 2017-18.

Interested parties from the skiing and snowmobiling world crowded into a conference room at the LTBMU’s South Lake Tahoe office Tuesday, March 29, to share their opinions and assess current policy at the agency’s first meeting.

“We had a really good showing,” public services officer Gina Thompson said of the turnout. “There’s a lot of interest.”

Thompson said initial responses indicated a primary concern with improving parking and trail-access opportunities.

For Lake Tahoe Community College avalanche safety instructor and Tahoe Backcountry Alliance founding member David Reichel, that also means regaining access that had previously existed.

“We’d like to see restoration of some of the lost access,” he said, citing Spring Creek and Fallen Leaf roads as examples. “I’m hopeful that access gets attention.”

Like a number of those in attendance, Reichel pointed toward a need for improved parking along the West Shore and other parts of the basin.

“There’s a lot of parking that has disappeared in the last five to 10 years,” he said.

Where some of that responsibility falls on, however, remains an issue, with maintenance and access split between the Forest Service, state and local agencies.

One person in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested that Fallen Leaf Road access would be a burden to maintain and a potential safety risk if its gates were opened through winter. Currently, residents along the road cover winter maintenance costs and have access to the county road through a locked gate.

Another potential change could include permitting guided commercial operations in some capacity.

Reichel described the basin as extremely limited in terms of commercial opportunity. By contrast, Truckee and the nearby Tahoe National Forest have numerous backcountry guiding outfits.

The same concern has previously been raised for summer opportunities. Both are things Forest Service landscape architect Daniel Cressy said the organization is currently reviewing.

The Forest Service will consider temporary permits for such operations, but — as Reichel pointed out — a temporary permit is not reasonable incentive for business investment.

The public comment period will remain open until Monday, May 2. The Forest Service will host a second open house at Kings Beach on Tuesday, April 5, from 5-7 p.m. at the North Tahoe Event Center on North Lake Boulevard. A third open house will be held in Sparks, Nevada, on Tuesday, April 19, from 5-7 p.m. at the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Supervisor’s Office on Franklin Way. There will be no formal presentation at either meeting. Forest Service staff members will be available to provide background information and answer questions.

For more information on the project and how to provide feedback, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/ltbmu/wintertravelmgmt.

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