Skier-snowmobiler spat solved in Sierra?
CARSON CITY, Nev. A new U.S. Forest Service plan, described by some as a model for compromise when it comes to conflicting winter sports in the Sierra just south of Lake Tahoe, could end 15 years of rancorous debate and courtroom battles.The proposal, which provides segregated areas for motorized and nonmotorized sports across a rugged swath of forested terrain in Alpine County, Calif., is the result of two years of discussions between backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.One-time opponents express satisfaction with the plan that aims to solve a problem that has erupted in the Colorado Rockies and other parts of the West. “We healed some old wounds, and everyone came away with a good feeling,” says Rob Levy, who represented snowmobile riders during lengthy negotiations.”I believe this is the best balance we’ll ever get,” says Marcus Libkind of the Snowlands Network, a muscle-powered winter sports advocacy group. “It’s what I would call a balance in opportunities.”If the proposed Alpine Winter Recreation Project is approved this summer, aspects of the plan could be implemented as soon as next winter, according to Gary Schiff, Forest Service district ranger in Carson City.Look at the landscapeThe issue dates to 1992, when the Forest Service started to update management strategies for an area that included a road used to reach terrain popular with both skiers and snowmobilers. Critics, citing mounting conflicts between the two sports, insisted the area be closed to snowmobiles.When the Forest Service declined, environmentalists sued, first in 1997 and again in 2000. Attempts over the years to settle the battle through compromise failed, with the federal government often at odds with county officials.A key ruling in the legal dispute came in 2004, when U.S. District Judge David Levi said the Forest Service had not assessed adequately the environmental impacts of snowmobiles and failed to prove they were causing problems. The judge sent the issue back to the agency for “further proceedings.”Those proceedings took the form of new discussions among the battling user groups in a new attempt at compromise, aided by a professional mediator paid for by the Forest Service. Talks focused on the future of winter recreation across the entire 726-square-mile county.”One of the key factors of this was to look over a broad landscape,” said Ed Monnig, supervisor of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “When you look at a broad landscape, solutions are available.”No short endSkiers and snowmobilers have essentially agreed on a strategy that offers something for everyone, participants in the negotiations agreed.Under the plan, snowmobiling would be allowed along the Forestdale Creek Road in early and late winter but would be prohibited during midwinter. Snowmobiles would then be diverted to a nearby area called Blue Lakes.Also, a large swath of backcountry in the area would be declared off-limits to snowmobiles and provide extensive terrain for quiet winter recreation; while snowmobile access over a nearby pass would be expanded.A detour around an avalanche-prone stretch of road also would be established for snowmobiles.Both sides in earlier battles over conflicting winter sports agreed the proposal is fair to all.”Now I would say the valley is divided, half motorized and half nonmotorized,” said Debbi Waldear, a champion cross-country skier and member of a group called Friends of Hope Valley.”I think it’s a good plan,” Waldear said. “Everybody gave up something, and everybody gained.”Lipkind agreed, adding he is unaware of anywhere else in the country where a recreation compromise of such a scale has been proposed.”This needs to be done in more areas,” he said.Levy, an avid snowmobiler who works as Alpine County’s assistant sheriff, said the level of satisfaction by both sides is surprising.”Somebody usually feels like they got the short end of the stick,” Levy said. “I think we came up with a pretty darned good plan.”The Forest Service’s Monnig said as more people crowd onto increasingly busy public land to recreate, such compromises will become of mounting importance across the country.”I think it is absolutely essential,” Monnig said. “This is certainly a model for the way I would like to see us work out some of these contentious issues regarding the use of public land.”