Jim Gibson loves cross-country skiing in peace and quiet. That’s why he gets disgruntled when a snowmobile zooms by while he’s out in the Tahoe National Forest.
“Snowmobiles definitely impact my experience,” Gibson said, adding that he’d like to know if there exists “a place I can and go and ski, and enjoy the backwoods, where there are no snowmobiles.”
Gibson got so tired of experiencing what he calls loud, disruptive snowmobiles and snow bikes that his ski group, Snowlands, and several other organizations took action: They sued the Forest Service — and won.
Now, he wants to restrict where snowmobiles can go. And it’s not just because he says they’re annoying; they say that motorized vehicles on snow have negative effects on the environment.
Around 81 percent of the Tahoe National Forest’s more than 800,000 acres is open to snowmobiles. Gibson says that is just too much.
“Twenty percent is closed to snowmobiles, and that’s where cross-country skiers like to ski,” Gibson adds. He wants access for snowmobiles cut to 50 percent.
A second lawsuit over the potential environmental effects of snow vehicles on the backcountry was also won by the groups that sued the Forest Service. Both cases were settled around 2012, and it took years for the Forest Service to come up with a plan. Now, it is rethinking how snowmobilers explore public land. Its final plan will determine what percentage of the forest and what trails are used for snowmobiles.
Last week, it came out with five alternative ideas for regulations: One offers no change, another would increase acreage and a third cuts access to the forest for snowmobiles in half. The other two decrease acreage, but are less stringent. The public has 45 days to comment.
A final environmental review is supposed to come out this summer. Four other forests in California — Lassen, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Plumas — are also going through a similar process.
Joseph Flannery, public information officer for the Tahoe National Forest, says this isn’t just about noise. There are issues such as threatening aquatic species and degrading trails and roads.
He says snowmobiles generate noise that could have an impact on wildlife and visitors experiences, and that “because of that we should develop an alternative that would show a difference maybe by moving the route further away, maybe by closing the route.”
Flannery says it’s the Forest Service’s goal to appease users of all sorts, while at the same time managing natural resources.
“Everyone wants to have their own bit of solitude,” Flannery explains. “Whether you’re on snowmobiles or skis. I think everyone is looking for their little slice of beautiful public land. ”
Not everyone loves the idea of downsizing access for snowmobiles.
Tom Dines owns a snowmobile business in Sierra City, about an hour north of Truckee. He says shrinking the acreage will decrease interest in the sport and that will make it hard to keep sales up.
“You make it small enough, you’re going to affect small dealerships like myself and otherwise snowmobiling in the state of California,” Dines said. “If that’s the elitists’ ultimate goal, then they will succeed with that.”
Closer to Lake Tahoe, Mark Dent leads snowmobile tours twice a day with Lake Tahoe Snowmobiling. On a recent weekday trip he led a group of tourists up a mountain starting just outside Tahoe City.
“Whew, there’s a view!” Dent told the crowd of snowmobilers of Mt. Watson, which is roughly 2,200 feet above the lake level. “This is the reward coming up here,” he said.
Dent says he doesn’t mind sharing the forest with cross-country skiers and that he teaches visitors to slow down and to give skiers plenty of space.
But it’s not always a friendly experience. “They can come up and share the trails with us,” Dent said. “Someone tried to poke me with a ski a few years ago when I came by. There’s a little resentment there and I can understand that.”
Still Dent believes everyone can find their peace and quiet. “I really do think there’s enough room for everybody up here,” he said.