Snowmobilers rail against proposed restrictions in Tahoe National Forest
For many in the Truckee-Tahoe area, snowmobiling is a way of life.
From gaining access to remote areas in the High Sierra to dropping children off at the bus after a heavy winter storm, use of the machines in the area has long been a core part of life for many in the community.
Many years ago, longtime local Michael Griffin even used a snowmobile to bring his newborn daughter to his home near Truckee.
Now many locals and snowmobile groups have said they are under attack after the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed snowmobile restrictions in the Tahoe National Forest.
“We’re coming down hard on the forestry because we don’t think they did it right,” Griffin said of the Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Statement.
Issues with over-snow vehicle restrictions
Snowmobile groups have taken issue with the proposed restrictions, which range from a 0.5 percent increase in the current management of 638,002 acres to a 57 percent decrease in the acres designated for over-snow vehicles, saying that required snow depths, width of machine, crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail, buffer zones and elevation standards are unfounded.
“They are going off some 50-year-old rule where they are trying to keep traffic off the Pacific Crest Trail and now they are trying to apply that to the High Sierra in the winter,” said Griffin, who has been snowmobiling in the area for more than 40 years. “Nobody uses it and nobody would. You can’t even find it. Nobody’s back there. It’s all an attempt to destroy the snowmobiling with an invisible fence right down the Sierra Crest that says we cannot go across.”
While the Forest Service has proposed designated crossings of the Pacific Crest Trail, Griffin said many of those create unsafe scenarios where riders are forced to double back or take more dangerous routes.
“We can’t go over the mountain to the other side and we’re supposed to ride along until we find a big sign that says cross here, and then turn around and go back to where you want to go,” Griffin said. “A lot of times there’s only one route you can go. It’s not safe — it’s too steep, too many trees, there’s a gully, or something — now they’re telling us you have to go there.”
Under most of the proposals, over-snow vehicles will be divided into two classes based on width. Machines larger than 50 inches in width would have additional restrictions and would only be allowed on designated over-snow vehicle trails available for grooming.
“The Tahoe National Forest released its over-snow vehicle management plan, proposing a reduction of useable area of over 260,000 acres, roughly 68 times larger than the initial proposal from 2015,” said Rep. Tom McClintock in a statement. “The plan also sets a new limit on over-snow vehicles of over 50 inches width to groomed trails, effectively prohibiting backcountry snowmobiling. The 50-inch rule was designed for off-road side-by-side summer use vehicles, and has no relevance to over-snow vehicles or science.
“When properly operated and managed, over-snow vehicles do not make direct contact with soil, water, or vegetation, and therefore should not be subject to the same restrictions as traditional motor vehicles. We urge the Forest Service to re-evaluate the new regulations to better serve the public.”
McClintock’s opponent in the upcoming election, Democrat Jessica Morse, also weighed in on the issue.
“This is another example of a community problem that has been given a one-size-fits-all solution,” Morse said in a statement. “Our Sierra is an economic hub of winter activities and if the Forest Service was properly staffed, I am confident that we could create a local solution that fits the environmental and economic needs of our community. Instead, McClintock and his allies have blocked the hiring for 700 vacant positions in our local Forest Service Region 5. Those are jobs that could be putting our young people to work protecting our community and our landscape.”
One of the main issues concerning snowmobilers is proposed depth requirements of 12 inches for operation, something riders feel they should be able to determine themselves since it would be their own machines damaged by driving on areas with little snow coverage.
“On a snowmobile they say the motor will heat up, but what heats up more is called a hyfax, and that’s a piece of nylon between the track and the frame,” said Kyle Felker, member of Sierra Access Coalition Steering Committee. “You can melt that down in 100 yards. My track will stick to this plastic. I pay the price, you don’t need a cop to write me up. It’s going to lock my machine up.”
Similarly, the groups have called the required elevation to operate of 5,000 feet an arbitrary finding by the Forest Service.
“We didn’t think it was done very well,” said Greg McKay of California Nevada Snowmobile Association. “All of the over-the-snow planning is a result of losing a lawsuit to Winter Wildlands, and I think they went too much the other way. (The Forest Service) didn’t engage the snowmobiling community until very late, and I’m sure they had numerous meetings with environmentalists. We just think it could be done much better than they did.”
Lawsuits over Travel Management
The proposed restrictions stem from a lawsuit against the Forest Service brought on by Winter Wildlands Alliance, which resulted in the overturning of the Forest Service’s exemption of over-snow vehicles in the Travel Management Rule.
“Some years ago the federal government instituted travel management regulations for how the Forest Service should plan and manage for travel on the National Forest,” said Forest Supervisor Eli Ilano during an open house in Truckee last May.
“The national forests in California hadn’t gone through that process and so some groups brought a suit against us … and so we settled that court case, and part of that settlement was we’d go through that planning process.”
The Lassen National Forest has already completed its analysis and is in the objection period. Snowmobile groups in that area, as well as environmental groups Snowlands Network and Winter Wildlands, have each expressed objections to the Forest Service’s proposal in the area.
The two environmental groups have outlined their objections based on proximity to residences, a lack of buffer next to the Pacific Crest Trail, protecting animals and conflict with cross-country skiers.
Several members of the snowmobile community, however, said there isn’t necessarily a great deal of warring between them and cross-country skiers.
“Cross-country skiers average less than three miles that they ski from their vehicle,” said Felker. “That isn’t very far for snowmobilers, we’re just getting started. I ride Little Truckee Summit and they’re just not out there.”
Members of the snowmobiling community also contested the impact on the environment by the use of the machines.
“They think you can’t mix vehicles and other people and it’s going to be a big mess,” said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.
“The reality is every form of recreation has an impact, but by far the least impact is over-the-snow travel — less than hiking, way less than equestrians.
“This is management by lawsuit. There’s nothing wrong with environmental laws when they are applied correctly … in the past, if a group like Snowlands alleged they did an insufficient environmental analysis, they would most likely get a judgment on their side.”
Granat said she grew up cross-country skiing until a disease cost her the use of her legs, but never had an issue with people on snowmobiles.
“We used to backcountry ski with snowmobiles all the time. In fact it made me happy, because if we went out somewhere at least we could find a way back or find a trail. I was always happy to see snowmobiles,” said Granat.
“The animosity has nothing to do with environmental conditions and everything to do with ideology … we are lumped into a category and told ‘You are bad people, because you use motorized vehicles. We don’t want any motorized vehicles anywhere in our forest. We don’t want to see you, we don’t want to hear you. We don’t want the forest to have this at all.’ These are not national parks, they are not national preserves, and they are not wilderness areas.”
Local snowmobilers in Lassen have taken issue with the amount of trails and acres closed to them, specifically in the Burney, California, area.
“Significant closures for those guys,” said Felker. “Anything up in that area is now closed. Once they prohibit an area it’s against the law to operate a snowmobile or possess a snowmobile, and once they get closed, it’s a rarity they get reopened. There are a few times that they have opened up places, and we’re dealing with that in Lassen right now.”
The objection resolution meeting in Lassen is scheduled for July 25 at the Lassen National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Susanville, California.
With the Tahoe National Forest just past the public comment period, Felker said he expects it to be roughly a year before the Forest Service comes back with its choice of restrictions.
“That’s on the fast track,” said Felker. “It’s been two years with Lassen. They were the first one out, and (the Forest Service) tests the water with each one of these.”
Eldorado National Forest
The Forest Service recently released its draft environmental impact statement for the El Dorado National Forest for over-snow vehicle use on forest system roads, trails and other areas.
“That whole document is flawed — fatally flawed as we would call it,” said Granat. “There’s very little science to prove snowmobile activity is harmful to the environment. I’m saying real science, not biased science, not Snowlands induced science. I’ve got a guy that’s researching all of the science they quote in their comments, and we’ve already found the conclusions that they have drawn from particular studies are not the conclusions that were actually in the studies.”
The proposal is similar to that of the Tahoe National Forest, with an alternative for no action, a 1 percent increase in total acres down to a 73 percent decrease. The proposal is currently under analysis by the Forest Service.
Moving forward, Granat said her organization, California Off-Road Vehicle Association, working in partnership with Sierra Access Coalition, have been working with a law firm and the Texas Public Policy Foundation to put together a coalition of 15 groups, representing eight states, and 20,000 individuals, and are getting ready to file an administrative petition, “to the USDA Secretary of Agriculture, to repeal the Travel Management rule and replace it with a better rule.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.