Changes to Forest District snowmobile policies make little progress

Tour group with Lake Tahoe Snowmobiles at the top of Mount Watson. | Anne Artoux

If you want something to happen quickly, don’t ask the USDA National Forest Service.

While ongoing updates to snowmobile access in several Forest Districts throughout the Tahoe Sierra continue progress at a snail’s pace, some are moving steadily forward. Meanwhile, groups on the ground are tracking how new policies for over-the-snow vehicles (OSVs) are working out so far in the Forest Districts that have gone ahead.

Here’s where things stand in an evolving process that has been the litmus test for every National Forest in the country that sees motorized winter travel on its public lands.

Stanislaus lawsuit still in court
Three months after being one of the first Forest Districts in the nation to issue an updated OSV policy in July 2021, Stanislaus National Forest was sued by Sierra Snowmobile Foundation and other organizations alleging that it overstepped its responsibility by reducing snowmobile access on the public lands it manages by 67 percent.

Three months after that in January 2022, WildEarth Guardians joined the suit on behalf of Stanislaus alleging that the plan didn’t do enough to protect endangered species, specifically the Sierra Nevada red fox, Pacific marten, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad.


Read Tahoe Guide’s ongoing public access coverage at YourTahoeGuide.com/access


All sides have presented their arguments to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California in Sacramento and the decision now lies the hands of District Judge Daniel J. Calabretta.

“It’s possible the judge will ask for oral argument before issuing a decision, but we don’t know,” says WildEarth Guardians public lands attorney Chris Krupp. “All the written briefing is complete. Courts operate on their own timelines, so it’s difficult to forecast with any accuracy a date when we can expect a ruling.”

How did we get here?
Stanislaus’ OSV maps are a court-ordered attempt at diplomacy between various public interest groups including snowmobilers; skiers, splitboarders and snowshoers; private landowners; environmental scientists and stewards; and more than a dozen government agencies. It is part of an ongoing process that began with a 1972 executive order requiring federal land-management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts associated with the use of motorized off-road vehicles on federal public lands.

While requirements were completed in the forests of the Tahoe Sierra for dirt bikes, quads and other vehicles by 2010, that same analysis for winter machines was never performed. Three groups – Snowlands NetworkWinter 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 (NEPA) to assess potential impacts and release updated maps that show where OSVs, including snowmobiles, snowbikes and utility terrain vehicles may and may not legally be used. By law, the Forest Service project teams must consider numerous factors in its decision such as preservation of the environment and local wildlife; federally protected areas including wilderness zones and the Pacific Crest Trail; the history of recreation in the area; and reports of disputes between motorized and human-powered travelers.

Since 2017, Tahoe Guide has reported on this process for the six Forest Service districts that encompass the Tahoe Sierra — EldoradoHumboldt-ToiyabePlumasTahoe, Stanislaus and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, as well as Lassen National Forest, which is a frequent destination for Tahoe locals and visitors. Tahoe Guide added Inyo National Forest, another popular destination of Tahoe locals and visitors, which includes Mammoth Lakes, to our coverage in 2023. Follow our complete coverage at YourTahoeGuide.com/access.

Tahoe, Eldorado and Plumas stall
Since being ordered to rewrite the OSV maps in 2013, three other National Forest Districts in the region – Tahoe, Eldorado and Plumas – have completed the scoping, environmental analysis and public comment requirements for their plans. It’s now up to each Forest Supervisor and their team of biologists, lawyers and policy specialists to sign off on a final decision.

But Tahoe, for example, (which had projected its decision for this winter) has been stuck on the last step for more than three years. In 2021, Forest officials from Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus and Lassen said they were ready to release their plans. Stanislaus was first to go and Lassen followed in 2022. Tahoe and Eldorado did not move forward and now both Forests are no longer committing to a release date.

“The project is still under analysis,” says Tahoe spokesperson Lauren Faulkenberry. “We do not have a date for the final decision.”

In interviews with Tahoe Guide, Forest officials declined to blame the pending court decision on Stanislaus’ decision for the ongoing delays, instead pointing to unprecedented wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, endangered species concerns and ongoing staffing shortages.

“We do not have a date at this time,” says Eldorado spokesperson Kristi Schroeder. “We have to revisit our environmental review for some new species that have been listed since we did our analysis. We do not have a Forest biologist hired yet that would perform that analysis and design and oversee the wildlife monitoring for the decision. Our previous biologist has moved on to another position in the agency.”

Although it aimed to release its decision at the end of 2024, Plumas National Forest did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the status of its plan.

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, spread across 6.3 million acres in California and Nevada, is the largest Forest in the lower 48. Despite once reporting it would commence scoping in the fall of 2021, it has not yet started its OSV project.

Lake Tahoe Basin, Inyo ongoing
Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which oversees 154,000 acres of specially designated National Forest lands, released its initial ideas for snowmobile policy updates in 2019. It received more than 1,000 comments and is currently working on an environmental assessment and development of possible alternatives for release in 2025 – six years later – according to LTBMU spokesperson Charles Clark.

Major issues driving the development of OSV decisions in the Tahoe Basin and other forests include: snow depth requirements and season of use; high-use conflict areas; impact to sensitive areas and species of concern; impact on neighborhoods; access points; separation of uses; and suggestions for additional groomed areas.

Inyo National Forest conducted its initial public comment period in the fall of 2023. To open up the process, it released a sample plan that would permit snowmobile travel on 305,000 acres (or 15 percent of its total holdings) including 107 miles of groomed trails and 1,400 miles of non-groomed roads.

Inyo is now conducting analysis based on the 166 comments it received. Popular public recreation areas affected by the plan include Lee Vining Canyon, Sherwin Creek, Mammoth Lakes and June Loop. 

“There is a lot of common ground,” says Winter Wildlands Alliance executive director David Page. “For example, staging at Shady Rest Park in Mammoth Lakes is problem everyone agrees about. The fix is rerouting the snowmobile trails closer to town, away from the non-motorized walking zones and baseball fields. It’s a perfect example of how this can work when everybody comes to the table. There are ways to move people around so this can happen.”

All public comments on the Inyo plan are available on the Forest Service website.

How are the new rules working?
Lassen National Forest was the second forest in the region to release an updated policy in 2022 that reduced snowmobile access on its lands by 22 percent. This is the first winter that rangers are enforcing the updated access rules. The new maps are available online and at Forest Service stations.

“Our law enforcement tries to educate first and with repeat offenders use harsher methods, possibly tickets, as needed,” says Lassen spokesperson Jessica McMullen. “We haven’t had any issues reported yet. This winter will really be the one where we’d see any existing conflicts in the plan. I’m assuming because we adequately responded to objectors’ issues, we haven’t faced that.”

Impacts of snow play visitors
During the record-breaking 2022-23 winter season, Winter Wildlands Alliance conducted surveys on new and existing policies at trailheads, parking lots and in the backcountry throughout the Sierra Nevada and California Cascades. Some of the observations were summarized in a report by the Alliance backcountry ambassador, Megan Fiske.

Surprisingly for some (though not for many), the most commonly reported issue was illegal parking, pet waste, litter and other conflicts coming from snow play visitors, not backcountry travelers.

“Outside of the occasions where snowmobiles violated boundaries, the biggest conflict for backcountry users is backcountry access being blocked/utilized by people engaging in snow play,” wrote Fiske in a report for Winter Wildlands. “The vast majority of littering, not cleaning up after pets, and parking illegally seems to be coming from the snow play community as it occurs within the first mile of the SNO-parks and parking areas. It would serve all backcountry users, motorized and non-motorized, for the USFS and other public lands managers to take a more proactive role in managing the public’s desire to engage in snow play.”

Boundary issues
Due to the heavy snow during the 2022-23 season that saw multiple storms drop 6 to 10 feet of snow, keeping informational signage, including wilderness boundary and Pacific Crest Trail markers, visible during fluctuating snowpack levels was another a major issue. 

“The biggest thing we’ve been working on is direct communications with our OSV community,” says Stanislaus National Forest spokesperson Benjamin Cossell. “It’s not a one-way street. We have to listen to them. And if we don’t show them, we are setting them up for failure. There’s a been a lot of work to get better signage and get better maps out there by our recreation people.”

Using the Avenza app, backcountry users can download an interactive map that tracks one’s location in relation to the OSV boundaries. Maps are also available on Forest Service stations and online.

If anything, the process of redrafting snowmobile policies has forced the Forest Service to learn more about its own lands and how the communities they serve interact with these wild places. Fortunately, these policies can be revisited and updated in the future as needed.

We’ve learned the value in working with partners at every stage,” says Cossell. “Does that mean that it’s going to 100 percent bullet proof? No. But the more shared ownership, the better off the entire project is going to be. I think this is a huge shift in the Forest Service. Even if we could do this work alone, we wouldn’t want to anymore.”


Plan Status by Forest District

Eldorado
Final decision under analysis | bit.ly/eldoradoOSV

Humboldt-Toiyabe
Not yet begun analysis | fs.usda.gov/htnf

Inyo
Draft environmental assessment under analysis | bit.ly/inyoOSV

LTBMU
Draft environmental assessment expected in 2025 | bit.ly/ltbmuOSV

Lassen
OSV plan in effect (released 2022) | bit.ly/lassenOSV

Plumas
Final decision under analysis | bit.ly/plumasOSV

Stanislaus
OSV plan in effect (released 2021) | bit.ly/stanislausOSV

Tahoe
Final decision under analysis | bit.ly/tahoeOSV