What Does Snowlands Network Want in the Woods?
A Fringe Inquestination
Snowlands Network has been active in Northern California in calling on the Forest Service and the state to open a discussion on over-the-snow use of the forest. See the website here http://www.snowlands.org/index.htm . Snowlands Network has also partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization seen by some (http://www.rangemagazine.com/features/fall-13/range-fa13-contents.htm) as one of the most pernicious green huckster organizations in the country; one that has been demonstrated doing pointless harm and damage to ag and recreation and getting rich doing it. That association alone makes Snowlands suspect in the eyes of some. A recent lawsuit on behalf of Snowlands and CBD might curtail snowmobiling in the Sierra.
What does Snowlands want, and how might that effect the people who matter most: us. A lot of Sierra County businesses make it through the winter because of snowmobile use of the woods. Things are very hard in the hills; logging is gone; dairies are gone; hard rock mines are mostly caving in; sluicing for gold is a criminal offense; people grow pot indoors now, which they can do right in the city; there are ever increasing restrictions on ag and recreational use of surface water; there are ever increasing restrictions on off-highway use of the forest; high gas prices discourage tourists. Sierra County has plenty of only three things: hazard fuel, aging alcoholics, and gravity. The hazard fuel brings in some fire fighters, alkies bring in some social service dollars, but gravity brings cyclists of every sort, and cross country ski and snowmobile buffs, and it is a local belief that snow tourists spend money and get otherwise flagging businesses through the long cold winter.
In the interest of disclosure, your Fringe Editor, like many in the county, both cross country skis and enjoys his snowmobile. With worsening arthritis I cross country ski less and snowmobile more.
I’m squarely in neither camp on this issue. However, I will confess an increasing impatience with mostly well off, mostly urbanized people who want us to stay out of the woods so they can play in Eden, summer and winter. A local boy can’t get a deer tag; can’t cut firewood like in the old days; can’t access the lakes; can’t visit old haunts. As some local folks get gray, the intersection of aging joints and hearts and muirish land use lawsuits mean some people can’t use the mountains they live in at all. Busy bodies trying to do good are making life unlivable in general. That’s my bias going in.
Snowlands Network focuses on a social issue, and not really an environmental one, and the organization is honest enough to admit. The heart of the problem is simple: a jerk on a $15,000 snowmobile carrying extra fuel and a couple extra spark plugs can travel a hundred miles in the time it takes a bird watcher carrying a hypoallergenic water jug and lentil and squash whole grain gluten-free pita bread to cross country ski five. Such a jerk can zip to the top of a scenic peak, spend a few pleasant hours with his honey, and be back to the launch pad in the time it takes a snow-shoer to struggle and trudge to the top, only to find spoiled snow, discarded spark plugs, empty beer cans, a topped off condom and a roach too small to smoke.
Or, consider someone who has worked their way up into the hills to enjoy the song of the bird, the wheezing of their own laboring lungs, throb of their pounding, pre-bypass heart, only to be distracted by a noise that starts like an angry bee and resolves to the stink and thunderous roar of half a dozen snowmobile demons who give a friendly wave as they blast past at 40 mph.
The meat of the problem is that snowmobiles burn gas to go fast and far, and cross country and snow shoe pumpers go slow and not so far, and the people who can’t go so far want to control where people who can fly across the snow can go. Snowmobilers on the other hand, complain very little about the pokey cross country skiers, and, as far as I know, no snowmobile organization is trying to keep the slow out of the woods.
There are over 20,000 registered snowmobiles in California, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, who provide many other facts about snowmobiles, including how wonderful they are and how wonderful snowmobile riders are. What reason would they have to BS us, right? Even so, their various statistics do describe what I know about snowmobile riders in our area. The average owner, according to IMSA is 41; he is most often male, and makes $68,000 a year. According to the site, snowmobiling is a 23 billion dollar a year industry. The IMSA also tells us: “Approximately 80% of snowmobilers use their snowmobile for trail riding and touring on marked and groomed trails. 20% of snowmobilers use their snowmobile for work, ice fishing and transportation.” That doesn’t leave any snowmobilers to tear up the wild lands and be a nuisance to Mom Nature and cross country skiers. It’s possible they are jiggering statistics, as all groups tend to do. Read their take on the issue here: http://www.snowmobile.org/pr_snowfacts.asp
California Parks has a document which describes a Draft Envirionmental Impact Report for a ten year study on the impact of over the snow vehicle recreation. It can be found here: http://ohv.parks.ca.gov/pages/25010/files/osv%20program%20public%20deir%20oct%202010.pdf . There is a copy of the final EIR on the internet, but the draft is a cleaner document to work from.
Published in 2010, the report states that Over the Snow Vehicles bring 200,000 visitors to the study area which includes the Tahoe National Forest. It claims that OSV ownership increases 4% a year. The study proposes 235-300,000 OSV by 2020. That’s a lot of visitors to places between 4,000 and 9,000 feet of elevation, which Sierra County has a great deal of; hence our gravity.
The Draft was finalized, and in 2011, Snowlands Network, Center for Biological Diversity, and other “environmentalists” (a phrase which has lost all meaning) brought suit and recently prevailed, forcing yet more study on the part of the Forest Service.
The Draft EIR primarily addresses the environment. Of course, the environment gets dragged into the issue by the anti-snowmobile effort; poor Mother Nature gets called in on so many causes I’m kind of surprised I haven’t heard she’s in rehab. The study identified potentially significant and less than significant issues. Among the potentially significant issues are: riding in wetlands in low snow periods; training the Red Fox to beg for food instead of hunting; trespass into wilderness areas; parking demand; and, even though wolverines are NOT known to be in the area, wolverine lovin’ and raising kits. There are plans for mitigation described for each issue. When considering bias in the report we keep in mind that the DEIR has three tasks: 1. To prove the issue under study is of social importance (a lot of people use snowmobiles); 2. To prove the environmental importance of the issue (it is an environmental impact report); 3. To prove their work is necessary to understand and correct the social impact on the environment (we can have our cake and eat it too through mitigation). As a result of this complicated and difficult task, the report should be expected to prove the work is necessary since without it someone loses a job. The report does that.
Snowlands Network, on their website, complain of noise, environmental damage including air pollution, and trespass. Do snowmobilers drop more stuff; do they litter spark plugs and spill fuel mix and pollute the air? Some are litterbugs; there is very little we can do about people who leave their mark on the wilderness by leaving trash. People who cross country ski sometimes also litter, and crap in the snow, and leave brown smeared paper neatly folded under a rock. There are more snowmobilers in our woods, and they go farther. Most probably don’t refuel on the trail or change plugs, and if they do they use the small caution necessary not to foul the earth. Two cycle sleds do make more smoke, particularly when they get older, but four stroke sleds often last longer, though they cost a little more and weigh more. Research has demonstrated that snowmobiles, particularly two cycle engines, create more air pollution than cars. By virtue of the fuel they burn and their greater speed (but not necessarily weight; some snowmobiles put down less weight per square inch than a pair of cross country skis) snowmobiles do pollute somewhat more than fart powered snow travel. But, enough more to make the case? In specific instances, or in early or late seasons, perhaps, but not typically. Play out the “environment” card altogether and nobody should get to go in to the woods.
One way to look at it is like this: the people on cross country skis should get a snowmobile and get out past where most snowmobilers go. After all, they could snowmobile, but they choose not to, and so they suffer, and they want everyone else to be held back, too, like the slowest kid in a kindergarten class who cries until the faster kids wait for him.
Another way to look at it is that some people who can now physically travel across snow on snowshoes and skis assume they’ll always be able to get to their favorite places, and so they’d like to prevent those who can’t get there on legs from going at all.
Another way to look at it is that some people believe in a “pristine” experience, one free from the coarser elements of society, and they feel it is appropriate to set aside places for that. It isn’t clear what their “pristine” experience is worth, to the state generally and more importantly, to us, but it is very important to Snowlands Network, and they’ve said so publicly.
It is possible there are other ways of looking at it, or at least other ways of talking about those ways.
I asked Snowlands Network a few questions, and Bob Rowen, spokesperson for Snowlands, was kind enough to provide a lengthy answer, below. It’s cherry picking to lure someone in to a long statement and then pick it apart at leisure, and I for one am not above such tactics. I encourage readers to read all of Mr. Rowen’s remarks.
A natural question for those concerned about snow tourism is: How many cross country skiers, specifically skiers who can’t live alongside snowmobilers, are there? Mr. Rowen suggests that leg powered users don’t use the county gravity as much as they might if snowmobilers were more restricted and there were more snowmobile free areas. We who live in resource extraction communities understand what the urban muirsh forget because they can afford to be distant from it: all resource use has a cost to the resource. Fish died so vegans could have organic rice; the environment is a closed system, though a large one, and making a living, eating food, driving a car all require someone to negatively impact the environment. What is the benefit to the county? How much will new regulations cost our county businesses in lost snowmobiler revenue, and how much will snow hikers bring in?
At this juncture, we have only Bob Rowen’s assurance: “There is sufficient land and recreation potential in Sierra County that there is no reason why the County should not attract its fair share of both snowmobile and ski/snowshoe tourism. This will require some restrictions on snowmobile activity but will leave plenty of terrain for continued snowmobile recreation and will not impact people who depend on snowmobiles to access their houses or cabins and it does not need to impact the bottom line of businesses who depend on snowmobile tourism. By attracting a greater number of skiers and snowshoers to the community, the community should financially benefit.”
From his discussion it becomes clear that in his opinion there are certain areas which attract both snowmobilers and snow hikers. Part of his solution is to curtail snowmobile traffic to those areas. But, according to Snowland’s site, only 80% of our snow recreation area is “dominated” by snowmobilers. That still leaves 20%, does it not? Of all snow recreational users, are more than 20% “snowmobile intolerant”? Further, snowmobiles are prohibited from going in to a wilderness area, and there are nearly 150 wilderness areas in California, many of them partially or entirely above 4000 feet. If Snowlands Network seeks a “balance”, isn’t that what we already have? A minority, not more than 20% of snow recreationists and probably fewer, wants fart power only zones, and 20% or more of our snow recreation areas are off limits to snowmobiles. We’re there with room to spare.
The judge did not agree. The lawsuit (link below) insists the state didn’t go far enough to prove how stinky and scary to bunnies and deer snowmobiles are. Snowlands et al insist the state regulate and enforce on the Forest
Service on Forest Service lands. It complains that plowing parking areas makes it easier for snowmobilers and it should be easy only for fart powered recreation. It complains that there are at least 46 access points for snowmobilers (and skiers) to access snow, but only 7 reserved for fart powered only. That isn’t balance, we guess, because it is less than 20%, but can’t people walk to snow in many, many more places along the road than snowmobilers can back up trailers and stage? Are we sure we haven’t reached “balance”? The suit says no, because they don’t get a CHOICE in which places they can go, even though, yes, they can go more places than snowmobilers, per capita, as well as all the places snowmobilers go.
The judge sent the plan back to have more work done. It might be possible to demonstrate that sufficient work was done on the plan, that a balance has been struck, that non-motorized over the snow recreationists are being sufficiently represented. We all know that the state can’t re-find as I’ve described; the complainers have won at least a bit of ground; there will be more regulations, more cost for enforcement, less money for trail grooming and marking. It will be easier to exclude some areas than to go back to court.
I have several objections to Snowland Network’s approach.
First, they begin with the assumption that fart powered is good, more pure, and closer to nature than snowmobiling. I don’t think that’s actually been proven. In fact, all their complaints would best be addressed by keeping everyone, including skiers, out of the woods. To that end I refer Snowlands Network and their partner Center for Biological Diversity to Voluntary Human Extinction, found here http://www.vhemt.org/ . To keep the earth pure, remove humans altogether, and perhaps our intrepid environmentalists would like to lead by example. I for one would like it if everyone stayed out of the Sierra all they can, but I don’t earn my living from tourism.
My second objection is that, once again, we’re looking at a relatively small group of people who want to “manage” the majority. Freedom stops where “management” begins. Once again, people from somewhere else, with different lives and culture, are trying to impress their way on the hayseeds that live in the hills. They are the 20% who wants to control the 80%.
That being said, I’m willing to turn over my 30 year old 2 cycle snowmobile if Snowlands Network will give me a nice new 4 cycle sled.
I’m also willing to concede that Snowlands Network has every right to try to impose their will on others; it’s the American way to drub your opposition senseless with lawsuits. If you don’t want to let them have their way, make your voice heard. You might start by joining an organization like Sierra Access http://www.sierraaccess.com/ .
I’d also like to thank Mr. Rowen for his time and cooperation; read his entire response below. He showed more honesty and candidness than most people who respond to a request for information from the Fringe. You Snowlands Network folks prove me wrong: come on to Sierra County, spend some money here, eat something with meat in it and have a beer. I’m sure we’ll be glad you came.
The Tahoe National Forest has a document controlling snowmobile use. It outlines where one may not use a snowmobile. This version is dated; I couldn’t find a newer version. https://fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5404125.pdf
Link to the petition: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/off-road_vehicles/pdfs/Petition-OSV-filed-stamped-copy.pdf
Thanks to Bob Rowen for responding from Snowlands Network. Read his responses; maybe you’ll be convinced.
Questions and responses
1. What, specifically, do you want to achieve? Please don’t use pointless terms like “a more balanced approach” but rather state your point clearly: what do you want to see in the mountains?
Well, I need to start with “a more balanced approach” because that is what we seek and there are several different ways in which it can be accomplished. Snowmobiles create a lot of noise and air pollution, as well as rapidly shredding powder snow on skiable slopes, and so many skiers and snowshoers do not want to recreate in areas with snowmobile use. Because of these impacts, snowmobile use dominates areas where there is significant snowmobile activity and precludes clean and quiet ski and snowshoe recreation. This has happened, for instance at Brockway Summit (near Northstar.)
The fact that some skiers and snowshoers are content to recreate together with snowmobiles does not alter the fact that many do not. Some of this is due to some people giving a greater importance to being in a clean and quiet environments, some is due the type of recreation that an individual pursues.
For instance, a backcountry powder bowl literally can provide fresh powder skiing to dozens of skiers, but this same powder can be shredded in an hour by one snowmobile. Nothing is more frustrating to a group of backcountry skiers than to spend an hour or more accessing a backcountry slope only to find that the powder has all been “consumed” by just one prior user on a snowmobile. Management of snowmobiles will create fair opportunity for all.
The Lakes Basin is an example of an area dominated by snowmobiles that could, with some management, provide recreational opportunity for everyone. The area is heavily used by snowmobilers – for good reason – but has very little ski and snowshoe use as compared, say, to Carson Pass, where skiers and snowshoers have ready access to areas closed to snowmobiles. The touring potential in the Lakes Basin is just as good as Carson Pass, with a variety of lakes and buttes and vistas and forest…a primary reason the Lakes Basin has comparatively little skier/snowshoer activity is, in large part, due to the unrestricted presence of snowmobiles.
There are a few ways in which management of snowmobiles can reduce this conflict. Areas can be closed to snowmobiles; areas can be restricted to trail-riding only; areas can be restricted to BAT (best available technology) snowmobiles. We think a creative solution would use a variety of these restrictions to substantially improve ski and snowshoe recreation opportunity without a comparable negative impact to snowmobile recreation.
2. Have you considered the result of your actions on the people who live in the mountains? I don’t mean urban transplants who live in Truckee or Tahoe, I mean real no kidding rural Sierra people. Is there some reason a negative impact on them can be ignored for some greater good?
The fears of a negative impact on local residents are greatly exaggerated. We do not seek to prevent people from using snowmobiles to access their houses or cabins or to prevent people from using snowmobiles for their business. Locals who enjoy snowmobile tourism and snowmobile play will still have plenty of opportunity to continue these activities. Locals who enjoy skiing or snowshoeing will have enhanced opportunities.
Whenever an area is closed to snowmobile use, no matter how small the area, there is the possibility that someone will say that such area was their absolute favorite place to recreate. This is regrettable, but we live in a big world with a lot of people and compromises need to be made so that we can all enjoy it. This is not an issue of locals vs. tourists, it is recognition of the fact that some uses of the land have a bigger impact than other uses and thus must be managed.
3. What long term benefit do you see to the environment and why do you believe curtailing snowmobile use would accomplish that?
The primary focus of Snowlands Network is on creating and preserving ski and snowshoe recreational opportunity. However, it is beyond dispute that snowmobiles are very dirty machines and it is also beyond dispute that our society is just beginning to comprehend all the global environmental dangers and problems from dirty burning of fossil fuels One of the amazing statistics from the studies in Yellowstone National Park is that snowmobiles – even though representing a small fraction of total visitation to the park, accounted for the majority of hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions from ALL visitation to the park over the course of a year.
At a local level, science is just beginning to assess the impacts from snowmobile use. Numerous studies have documented the adverse impact of snowmobiles on wildlife: impacts that can take decades to fully manifest themselves in serious declines in wildlife populations. We believe it is foolish to ignore these problems until they demand attention through ecological calamity. All too often society has woken up too late to find that some form of activity has seriously damaged the environment. For instance, there is a significant concern about the impact of snowmobiles on fragile high alpine terrain – impacts that may not become apparent until it is too late to stop long-term damage.
It is a clear and undeniable fact that environmental restrictions imposed by government in the last fifty years have had a huge benefit to society: much cleaner air, much cleaner water, old-growth forests preserved, increased opportunities for fishing, hunting and nature tourism. This is especially important for Sierra County: a community that increasingly depends on the beauty and bounty of its natural environment for its economic health. The community should weight the slight impact from increased management of snowmobiles to the uncertain long-term cost of environmental damage.
4. Send a message to our rural, tourism dependent people.
We recognize that some people do ski and snowshoe in the same areas used by snowmobiles. I myself have skied on the roads in the Lakes Basin, the ski trail at the Gold Lake staging area and also at Bucks Lake, as well as other mixed-use areas outside Sierra County. But it is not preferred, and many skiers and snowshoers simply will not come to Sierra County to recreate unless they can be assured of enjoying clean and quiet recreation on scenic trails. This does not mean that snowmobile recreation as an economic driver needs to stop. It does mean that some compromises need to be made.
There is sufficient land and recreation potential in Sierra County that there is no reason why the County should not attract its fair share of both snowmobile and ski/snowshoe tourism. This will require some restrictions on snowmobile activity but will leave plenty of terrain for continued snowmobile recreation and will not impact people who depend on snowmobiles to access their houses or cabins and it does not need to impact the bottom line of businesses who depend on snowmobile tourism. By attracting a greater number of skiers and snowshoers to the community, the community should financially benefit. And by ensuring that the Sierra Nevada continues to be ecologically healthy – and possibly restoring its natural bounty of wildlife – the lives of local residents and tourists will be enhanced.