Snowmobile controversy won’t melt
While the snow in Lake Tahoe is melting fast, issues concerning those who play in the snow continue to broil. One of the most contentious is the increased presence of snowmobiles in the backcountry.
Snowmobilers contend they’ve got every right to use public lands. But some non-motorized users are concerned the machines too often trespass where they aren’t allowed, and want to make sure law enforcement agencies catch and cite violators. In California, the minimum fine for a snowmobile in wilderness or other closed-off areas is $500.
“Some forests are and some forests are not (enforcing the law on snowmobiles),” said Debbie Walder, a member of the preservation group Friends of Hope Valley, which is concerned about motorized trespassing in Hope Valley.
Non-motorized users of the forest are concerned about the noise and smell of the machines, as well as their environmental impact.
“They have made some citations this year, but not anywhere near the trespassing going on,” said Walder, a 23-year resident and renowned cross country skier in Alpine County.
Law enforcement officers in and around Tahoe, including Mt. Rose and Hope Valley, confirmed that enforcement is stronger in some recreational areas than in others.
Gary Barnett is the patrol captain for law enforcement and investigations for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and the Tahoe National Forest. He said their unit is one of the more proactive, but catching violators remains tough.
“We’re doing the best we can, we just have limited budget and staffing,” Barnett said. “Our funds are going down while the sport is growing.”
In Hope Valley, a favorite spot for snowmobilers, $25,000 was granted to the Alpine County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement, but not one citation was issued all winter.
The money came from the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Commission, which is charged with allocating $60 million in taxes generated by four-wheel drive fuel taxes and OHV green sticker fees to agencies like the Forest Service, BLM and county sheriff’s offices. OHV sticker fees, incidentally, account for only $200,000, so a disproportionate amount of the money comes from four-wheel drive highway users.
Two years ago, a sea change occurred in how OHV recreation is managed. Legislation was passed that shifted funding from maintaining recreational trails for snowmobilers to paying law enforcement to keep them out of closed-off areas, as well as funding rehabilitation efforts.
The industry hasn’t seen an economic loss because of this – snowmobile sales have boomed in the last few years. The all-terrain vehicle industry grew 123 percent last year, Barnett said. Part of the boom comes from technological improvement in the machines.
How pervasive is the problem?
“They are a far superior machine to what was out there five years ago,” said Doug Ridley, who just spent his first winter as OHV coordinator for the Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “They’ve added a low-end torque that has allowed people to negotiate steep terrain,” he said. Ridley lived in Yellowstone for 10 years, where he used snowmobiles to get around in winter.
Ridley contends there’s been a dramatic drop-off of violators in the basin because of the increased presence of law enforcement.
“We have two folks on during summer and winter. They divide up basin trails and hit them over the course of seven days. The goal is to look at high-use areas once a week,” Ridley said. Non-motorized user groups like the Friends of Hope Valley and Snowlands Network, who monitor areas outside the basin, tell a different story from Ridley’s.
“Snowlands has documented consistent snowmobile trespass in the Mt. Rose wilderness throughout the last five years. It has increased over the past few years,” said Gail Ferrell, a board member of Snowlands Network, a three-year-old, nonprofit group that promotes and protects winter wildlands for non-motorized recreation in California and Nevada. The group was instrumental in closing off Tahoe Meadows near Mt. Rose, to motorized use.
“Tahoe Meadows is the most heavily used area in the winter as far as skiers, snowshoers, snowboarders and families doing snow play,” Ferrell said. “You will easily see 500 cars, and 95 percent of the users are pedestrian, non-motorized users.”
The Carson Ranger District was granted $40,000 to perform law enforcement in the Tahoe Meadows, but so far, no citations have been issued in the wilderness itself and only two violations were issued in a closed-off area.
Wilderness areas, which are closed to motorized vehicles, are tough for the Forest Service because they do their patrols on snowmobiles. If a violator is in the wilderness, the Forest Service cannot pursue them inside on a snowmobile.
At least 10 citations have been given in the basin side of Mt. Rose this year, which points out the difference in law enforcement over two districts, Tahoe Basin Management Unit officials said.
The Carson Ranger District also monitors Hope Valley, where cross country skiers are documenting snowmobile incursions.
“We did have sightings of snowmobiles five or six miles inside wilderness around Winnemucca Lake this past weekend,” said John Brissenden, owner of Sorensens Resort and one of seven members of California’s OHV Commission. Commissioners are appointed by the California governor, the speaker of the Assembly or the Senate president.
Brissenden contends that although agencies like the Alpine County Sheriff’s Department and the Forest Service receive funds for law enforcement from the commission each year, they aren’t doing enough.
“The Forest Service and local law enforcement agencies are not responding to their responsibilities in this area, or they are doing it in a very limited capacity,” Brissenden said.
And while these agencies assert that they patrol wilderness boundaries on a regular basis, citations are rare.
“My understanding is that we have not caught anyone, we have not issued citations,” said Robert Levy, undersheriff for the Alpine County Sheriff’s Department, which receives $25,000 a year from the commission to monitor some areas of Hope Valley. The money was not enough to hire someone extra to perform enforcement, so officers only patrol on their days off, for time-and-a-half pay.
In contrast, $40,000 a year from the commission was enough for the Tahoe Basin Management Unit to hire three employees to permanent status and step up enforcement of Desolation Wilderness, Freel Peak and Meiss Meadows, areas off-limits to snowmobilers. Meiss Meadows is proposed wilderness and must be protected as such until a decision is made.
“General citation numbers are down, and the number of contacts are similar to a year ago,” said Ridley.
Ridley and Barnett say the Forest Service is concerned about the issue. National Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has said the top four threats to public lands includes “damage from unmanaged recreation, especially off-road vehicles.”
The Tahoe Basin Management Unit does their enforcement through education first and issues citations as a second resort. In addition to ground patrols, helicopter patrols are used to survey where violations are occurring most and then followed up on at staging areas.
Rangers patrol for violations such as basic resource issues (plant or stream damage), inappropriate riding in closures and wilderness, failure to register, not wearing a helmet and noise compliance. Many snowmobiles have their mufflers removed, adding to the annoyance of other users.
The Tahoe Basin Management Unit also follows up on all complaints, Ridley said.
But Barnett acknowledged that for every complaint, there are many that go undocumented.
The OHV Stakeholders’ Roundtable
As far as solutions to the conflict, he sees potential in the OHV Stakeholders Roundtable, a group of more than 70 people who represent recreationists affected by OHVs, including snowmobilers, equestrian groups, skier groups, the Forest Service, the BLM, highway patrol, and conservation groups like the Sierra Club.
The roundtable meets three to four times a year with a professional facilitator to discuss hot issues. The next meeting is May 20 in Sacramento. It was the OHV Roundtable that made the original recommendation to the Legislature to change the Commission’s mandate on how to distribute funds.
The issue will most likely continue to grow, as snowmobile sales indicate no sign of slacking off. The pro-enforcement groups acknowledge that not all snowmobilers are breaking the rules, but the issue is exacerbated by a few scofflaws that give the reputable rider a bad name.
Ridley pointed out that respect is needed on both sides.
“We need to manage those lands for both user groups, and it’s not easy. If everyone uses a little common sense and a little common courtesy,” then user conflicts can be reduced, he said.