Sonora Pass legal to snowmobiles: U.S. Forest Service opens 7,000 acres in proposed wilderness, pending appeal process
The Wilderness Society plans to challenge a decision last week by the U.S. Forest Service’s Carson Ranger District to open a portion of an area 90 miles south of Lake Tahoe to snowmobiles.
The district, which also manages public land in Hope Valley, said it plans to open 7,000 acres of the Proposed Addition to Hoover Wilderness to snowmobiles, leaving 40,000 acres off limits.
Commonly known as Sonora Pass, the area was officially closed to motor vehicles, but has been a popular snowmobile destination for decades because the ban was not enforced.
More than half of sledders on any given day are from the Tahoe area, according to Pliny Olivier, president of the South Tahoe Snowmobile Association. He calls it the most vast and thrilling area for sleds in the lower 48 states.
From e-mails he’s received, Olivier said the snowmobile community seems satisfied with the move, although they were hoping the entire 47,000 acres would be opened. So far, there are no plans for an appeal from their side.
Snowmobiles won’t be allowed in the 7,000-acre area opened for them after April 15.
The district reviewed more than 11,000 letters of public comment from throughout the country, including an official comment from Yosemite National Park opposing the move.
The large majority of letters did not favor allowing snowmobiles.
The comments were mostly form letters available on Web sites like the Wilderness Society’s, said Dave Loomis, project manager with the Carson District.
“This is not a voting process,” said Loomis. The Forest Service weighs all substantive comments to come up with a decision, he said. It also considers its directive from Congress to allow for multiple recreation opportunities on public land.
The Wilderness Society said it will appeal the decision in the next couple of months, and if it does not succeed, will have to resort to legal action.
“Public agencies should be looking for substantive comments as well as testing the will of the people, and I think the people have spoken and the Forest Service is ignoring that voice,” said Sally Miller, field representative for the Wilderness Society.
The Forest Service continues to recommend to Congress that it designate the area wilderness, which would make it completely off limits to snowmobiles once again.
Under that recommendation, the Forest Service is required to protect the area’s wilderness characteristics. Wilderness is the highest form of federal protection for public land. The agency cannot build roads, develop, log or lease the area for mineral rights.
Some also consider prohibiting motorized use a necessity to protect the wilderness characteristics.
However, the Forest Service believes snowmobiles, because they travel over snow, do not have enough of an impact to affect the area’s wilderness quality and would not prevent any future moves by Congress to make it a wilderness.
“Snowmobile use in recommended wilderness area is a common practice,” the Forest Service said in a press statement announcing the decision.
Yosemite National Park weighed in on the debate because of concerns that snowmobiles are using the area to access the park and its surrounding official wilderness, all of which is off limits to the machines.
In the meantime, conservationists are concerned the 40,000 acres closed to snowmobiles will not be enforced. While dozens of warnings were issued last year – when the area was still officially closed – no one was cited.
“We have no confidence the agency will be able to keep renegade snowmobilers out of the rest of that area,” said Miller.
The Forest Service is taking a wait-and-see stance.
“There are enforcement challenges now, and there will be enforcement challenges if it is designated as wilderness,” said Loomis. “That’s speculation that there will be more or less.”
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