Snowmobile access plan faces lawsuit: More regional OSV plans to be released

Mt. Watson, a popular snowmobiling destination on the North Shore. | Luke Allen

In spite of legal pushback on changes to snowmobile access, national forest districts in the Tahoe Sierra are moving forward with updated over-snow vehicle (OSV) management plans this year.

The Tahoe Sierra encompasses portions of six Forest Service Districts – Eldorado, Humboldt-Toiyabe, Plumas, Tahoe, Stanislaus and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit – all of which are required to update OSV plans for each district. OSVs include snowmobiles, snowbikes, utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) and other motorized vehicles. The Tahoe Weekly has been reporting on public lands’ access and its use by motorized and nonmotorized groups, including OSV plans, since 2017. The Lassen National Forest is also a frequent destination for Tahoe locals and visitors, so Tahoe Weekly includes the district in its coverage on this topic. Follow our complete coverage at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Stanislaus plan first released

Stanislaus National Forest was the first in the region to release its final OSV plan on July 13, 2021, when Forest Supervisor Jason Kuiken put forth a decision that reduced previous OSV access by 67 percent. Now only 13 percent (119,104) of the forest’s 898,099 total acres remain open to snowmobiling and other motorized winter sports.

The ruling in Stanislaus National Forest also imposes 12- to 24-inch snowpack minimums and no OSV use below 5,000 feet. The changes are in effect for this season; new maps are available at rangers stations and online.

We listened carefully to our stakeholders to come up with a balanced approach that provides the public with motorized and non-motorized winter recreational opportunities while natural resources, including sensitive species, are preserved and maintained for future generations to enjoy.
–Jason Kuiken, Stanislaus National Forest supervisor

“It is a balancing act to meet the needs of multiple uses and ensure forest resources are protected,” said Kuiken on a Jan. 19 Facebook post. “We listened carefully to our stakeholders to come up with a balanced approach that provides the public with motorized and non-motorized winter recreational opportunities while natural resources, including sensitive species, are preserved and maintained for future generations to enjoy.”

Representatives with Stanislaus National Forest declined to comment directly on the plan when contacted by Tahoe Weekly.

Three months to the day after Kuiken’s decision, Sierra Snowmobile Foundation, Blue Ribbon Coalition and The American Council of Snowmobile Associations filed a lawsuit on Oct. 13 against the Forest Service for failing to follow its own directives in its implementation of the plan.

The suit against Stanislaus

The lawsuit focuses on the unanticipated restriction of access to historically popular, upper-elevation, high-volume snow areas in the Highway 108 and Highway 4 corridors including Castle Rock, Three Chimneys, Cooper Peak and the area between Highland Lakes Road and Pacific Valley. It alleges the Forest Service’s restriction on OSV access to protect the Sierra Nevada red fox, Yosemite toad and Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and that reported environmental studies demonstrated “no measurable effects on aquatic resources, riparian systems or meadows.”

Plaintiffs also assert the Forest Service’s decision to limit OSV access below 5,000 feet lacks the adequate analysis to support it: “The FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement] does not consider that in many years — 2017 and 2019, for example — areas below 5,000 feet easily satisfied the minimum snow-depth requirements for significant periods of time. … In sum, the Final ROD [record of decision] strongly favors non-motorized recreation over OSV recreation. It effectively creates new non-motorized areas in the Stanislaus National Forest without a sound basis or explanation.”


Stanislaus District’s OSV plan:

  • 67 percent reduction in OSV terrain
  • Loss of OSV access to Castle Rock, Three Chimneys, Cooper Peak and between Highland Lakes Road and Pacific Valley
  • Loss of access to all areas at less than 5,000 feet in elevation
  • 12- to 24-inch snowpack minimums required
  • April 15 closure at Sonora Pass
  • 25 miles of groomed OSV trails

The civil complaint requests the U.S. District Court of Eastern California declare the decision unlawful and set it aside pending further analysis.

Sierra Snowmobile Foundation declined to comment on the pending litigation citing disappointment with the way their organization has been portrayed by other media outlets throughout the public scoping process.

“We’ll let the lawsuit speak for itself,” said Kevin Bazar, the foundation’s director, in a phone call with Tahoe Weekly, noting that he appreciated this publication’s past coverage on the issue. Stanislaus National Forest also declined to comment on the complaint.

“With the pending litigation, we’re unable to comment at this time,” said public affairs officer Benjamin Cossel in a Feb. 2 email to Tahoe Weekly. “Commensurate with their normal duties, we do have both Forest Protection Officers and Law Enforcement Officers patrolling the entire forest including the areas mentioned in [the lawsuit]. At the moment, we are taking an educational approach to enforcement, helping people understand how to read the closure maps and follow the rules. That said, it is incumbent on the OSV user to know the rules and know where they are on the landscape. We will be graduating to a stricter enforcement policy in the near future.”

Read the lawsuit in full | CLICK HERE

Managing user interests

Stanislaus National Forest’s new OSV map is a court-ordered attempt at diplomacy between various public interest groups including snowmobilers; non-motorized, back-country travelers such as skiers, splitboarders and snowshoers; private landowners; environmental scientists and stewards; and more than a dozen government agencies.

This process began in earnest when a 1972 executive order by President Nixon required federal land-management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts associated with the use of motorized off-road vehicles on federal public lands. While the forests in the Tahoe Sierra completed the requirements for dirt bikes, quads and other vehicles by 2010, they did not perform that same analysis for winter machines.


District Project Plans

Plans for each district are available at fs.usda.gov. Direct links to each District’s plan are available at TheTahoeWeekly.com.


Three groups, Snowlands Network, Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity, subsequently sued the Forest Service in 2011 to perform that study. The result was a 2013 settlement to complete the analyses. Each National Forest that sees significant OSV use is now required by the National Environmental Policy Act to assess potential environment impact and release an updated map on where OSVs may be used.

More plans to be released

Regardless of the litigation facing Stanislaus at U.S. District Court in Sacramento, other area forests including Tahoe, Eldorado, Plumas and Lassen have been working with the public on plans of their own since 2015 and intend to release final decisions this year. The changes would take affect for the 2022-23 winter season.

“We were aiming to have a decision in place for this winter season,” said Plumas National Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton in a Jan. 25 email. “With last year’s significant fire season and impacts on our communities taking priority we’re now looking to have a decision in time for next winter.”

Tahoe National Forest could be the next to release its plan as soon as mid to late spring.

“The Stanislaus OSV project litigation should not affect our timeline,” said public affairs officer Randi Shaffer in a Feb. 1 email.

Lassen National Forest’s final decision is currently being reviewed by the Pacific Southwest Regional Office.

“Once this review is complete, the project decision documents will be sent to our National Headquarters for further review, acceptance and publication in the Federal Register,” said Lassen public affairs officer Amanda Oliver in a Feb. 2 email. “We do not know at this time how long this process will take.”

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) is currently working on the development of possible alternatives based on more than 1,000 comments received during the public scoping period for the project. The revised proposal is expected to be released near the end of 2022 at which time the public will have a 30-day period to comment. LTBMU’s original proposal featured broad changes including OSV-use restrictions between April 15 and Nov. 1, and reduced access at Incline Village, Hell Hole, Chickadee Ridge, Barker Pass and Fallen Leaf Lake.

“We have time to incorporate any guidance related to litigation as we move through the travel management process,” said recreation planner Ashley Sibr in a Feb. 1 email.

The adjacent 6.3-million-acre Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada (the largest in the lower 48) has yet to put forth any public proposals at this time. | fs.usda.gov


Read our continuing coverage on public access on public lands at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Watch Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Jason Kuiken explain the new OSV regulations.

Read the full lawsuit brought against Stanislaus National Forest District.


Projects Plans by Forest Service District
Eldorado |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=46034
LTBMU |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=47342
Lassen |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=45832
Plumas |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=47124
Stanislaus |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=46311
Tahoe |  fs.usda.gov/project/?project=45914