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U.S. Forest Service to use aerial watch on snowmobiles

The U.S. Forest Service is planning to take enforcement efforts on Lake Tahoe Basin’s snowmobile restrictions to another level – the air.

Forest officials said they will use an airplane this winter to make sure the basin’s motor-free zones – Desolation Wilderness, Granite Chief, Meiss country, Page meadows and Freel peak – are just that.

“Unless we actually see them with their snowmobiles in the wilderness, it’s difficult to prove,” said Dennis Cullen, a supervisory law enforcement officer for the El Dorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “Airplanes have been used successfully in other areas around the state to catch snowmobiles where they shouldn’t be.”



The nation’s federal wilderness areas have prohibited motorized use since the passing of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Meiss country and Freel peak were once proposed wilderness areas. Although never tagged with the official ranking, the areas were designated for primitive use, making them off limits to motorized vehicles.

“(The closures) are there to protect the wilderness experience and provide a place for people to get away to,” Cullen said.




But snowmobile tracks and public reports indicate that several hundred riders venture into the basin’s wilderness areas each season, despite the legal ruling.

Riding in a closed area is a misdemeanor offense carrying a first-time penalty of $150. Repeat violations are assigned fines up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail.

Registration and safe operation rules will be strictly enforced on the 80,000 acres open to snow machines at Lake Tahoe, Cullen said.

In addition, the Forest Service is pondering an increase in the minimum amount of snow from 6 inches to 1 foot before snowmobiles can travel through Tahoe’s backcountry.

“It would essentially be a resource protection measure for erosion and to keep people from ripping around and tearing up willows and grasses,” said Gary Weigel, recreation program manager for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe unit.

The potential increase, which wouldn’t go into effect until next season, doesn’t seem to bother area snowmobilers who say riding isn’t safe with less than a foot of snow anyway.

“That probably wouldn’t be a problem,” said JacLyn Howard, past president of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Association. “I can’t ever remember going out when there was only 6 inches of snow.”

It’s the closures that call cries from snowmobile advocates, like Al Bartley, who has been riding Tahoe’s wintry hills for 15 years.

A representative of the Nevada and California Snowmobile Association, Bartley said regulations are making it more difficult for snowmobilers to enjoy their sport legally.

“If you look at what’s available in the basin -it’s almost nil,” Bartley said. “I think the forest should be open to the American people and it shouldn’t be shut down by extreme interests.”

And more closures could be on the way.

Tahoe Meadows, a popular winter play destination at the top of the Mount Rose Highway in Nevada, is up for land-use review by managers in the Carson Ranger District.

Currently, the meadow is open to snowmobiles and the proposed management action intends to keep it that way. Public comment collected during the summer months, however, could change the policy.

“We’ve received comments both ways, requesting the area be closed to snowmobiles and that the area remain open,” said Larry Randall, program manager for the Carson District. “We’re in the process of digesting those comments, and there have been a lot of compelling arguments for both sides.”

A decision will likely be ready in January or February.

“In the meantime, we’re going to manage the area as we have in the past,” Randall said. “We’re going to improve the signing of the wilderness boundary and closures – we want to take that excuse away from people that they didn’t know it was closed.”


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