Snowmobile ban may be lifted
A fierce argument is brewing 90 miles away that has conservationists and the snowmobile industry head-to-head over public land use.
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to change its policy and officially open an area at Sonora Pass to snowmobiles, after a 24-year closure that was not enforced until two years ago. To do this, it must change its forest management plan.
The move has caused conservation groups to accuse the industry of illegal tactics to kidnap public lands, while sledding enthusiasts are fighting back with allegations that opposing groups are trying to completely eliminate riders from such lands.
The situation is indicative of controversies occurring across the country and in Tahoe, most notably in Hope Valley and Mount Rose.
Sonora Pass is the highpoint of Highway 108, and about 1-1/2 hours south of Tahoe. It is known among sledders from Canada through the Northwest down to the basin as offering some of the most vast and awesome snowmobiling in the Lower 48.
A powder-filled bowl laced with butterfly-patterned snowmobile tracks is no rarity in the Sierra Nevada. And Sonora Pass is no exception. The problem is motorized use has been illegal for 24 years at the pass, which lies in a proposed expansion area to the Hoover Wilderness.
At least 37 warnings have been issued by the Bridgeport Ranger District this season for incursions, but no citations.
Maps have shown the area as closed since 1986, while the closure has been in place since 1981. Wilderness areas are off limits to motorized use and development. It takes an act of Congress to designate a wilderness area. Proposed wilderness areas must be protected in a way that it would not jeopardize a wilderness designation by Congress.
The Sonora Pass area is part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and managed by the Bridgeport Ranger District.
A Tahoe favorite
Many Tahoe snowmobile enthusiasts ride at Sonora Pass.
“If you did a study, 30 or 40 machines are there on a weekend, and about 40 or 50 percent are from Tahoe,” said Paul Morris, owner of Performance Sleds in South Shore. He said he’s been riding there since the ’70s.
When a ranger decided to enforce the snowmobile closure two years ago, it infuriated the snowmobile industry, especially in Bridgeport, which had come to rely on that income to survive the bleak economic prospects of winter on the east side, according to the president of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Association.
The Forest Service’s present proposal to remove the closure has upset conservationists.
“The concern is that the agency is rewarding illegal behavior because they are now proposing to lift the closure that has been in place for many years,” said Sally Miller, Wilderness Society field officer who lives in Mammoth Lakes.
“What kind of precedent does that set for the management of forest lands?”
Comment period open now
The Forest Service received 4,000 letters on its plan to open the area to snowmobile use during an open comment period ending Dec. 31. The majority of those letters supported enforcing the closure to motorized sleds. Two weeks ago, another 30-day comment period opened for a second proposal to open 7,000 acres of the 42,000 acres of the proposed wilderness.
“This is not a voting process. We did not take an exact tally,” said Forest Planner Dave Loomis, explaining its decision-making process. “We look at the quality of the comment versus the people that just sent in identical e-mails.”
Loomis is the planner for the Carson and Bridgeport ranger districts, which manage areas from Mt. Rose to Hope Valley and Sonora Pass.
Meiss Meadows, home to the headwaters of the North Upper Truckee River, is an area similar to Sonora Pass. It is being considered for proposed wilderness and is presently closed to motorized use, but mountain bikes are allowed. But snowmobile incursions have been documented there, as well as in wilderness near Hope Valley and at Mount Rose.
“We still do have a significant amount of incursions in Mount Rose,” said Doug Ridley, OHV coordinator for the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Pliny Olivier, president of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Association, claims signage in Mount Rose is unclear, so incursions are more likely to happen.
He believes conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of Hope Valley want to “completely eliminate” snowmobiles from public lands, although everyone has a right to use them.
“Kidnapping public lands”
But John Brissenden, owner of Sorensen’s Resort, and a member of the California Off-Highway Vehicle Commission, says snowmobilers have a coordinated tactic to “kidnap public lands.”
“They go in and use lands illegally all the time, and it’s to expand their territory. It’s a strategy that’s top down. They are constantly in the wilderness around Hope Valley, daily. They are using illegal tactics and intimidation to persuade agencies to change their policies.”
Olivier acknowledged that he has been riding at Sonora for five years, and knew it was illegal.
“The fact of the matter is: snowmobiles were allowed,” Olivier said. “The law was passed, but the Forest Service chose not to enforce it.”
Now, snowmobile associations and shops are encouraging riders to stay away until a final decision is made, he said.
Illegal or not
Olivier and Morris don’t consider the closure legitimate in the first place.
“Only Congress has the right to establish a wilderness,” said Olivier.
Morris suspects citations haven’t been issued because the Forest Service isn’t sure of its own legality in writing citations.
“I tell my local boys to tell them, have them write you a ticket, and they won’t do it,” Morris said.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service said it still recommends to Congress that Sonora Pass be designated wilderness.
Send comments on snowmobile ban to:
Margaret Wood, Acting Bridgeport District Ranger
HCR1 Box 1000
Bridgeport, CA 93517
or Fax: (760) 932-5899
For more information: http://www.fs.fed.us/r4/htnf/
Deadline: April 16
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