The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
January - February 2008
Court allows snowmobiles in proposed wilderness
On Sep. 5 U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb ruled against the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, and upheld the U.S. Forest Service's snowmobile plan for 7,000 acres south of Sonora Pass.
In 1984 this area was designated as a proposed addition to the adjacent Hoover Wilderness. The full addition was to consist of about 47,000 acres, extending south to Yosemite National Park and including the headwaters of the West Walker River, and was to be managed as wilderness until its suitability was determined. The area is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and is included in Barbara Boxer's California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which she has reintroduced in every Congress since 2002.
For many years the entire area was closed to snowmobiles, but illegal trespass was tolerated by the Forest Service, until district ranger Kathy Lucich announced a plan to enforce the closure. Her life was threatened, she was transferred, and the Forest Service failed to stop trespassing snowmobile use in what became a major snowmobile-play area for advanced riders able to handle the steep terrain. In 2005 the Forest Service announced a snowmobile management plan for the 7,000-acre area near the pass and along the south side of Route 108. The wilderness bill introduced by Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon excluded this area. The Mono County Supervisors attempted to broker a compromise whereby environmental organizations would accept snowmobile use in the excluded area in return for a 40,000-acre wilderness addition. Neither the Sierra Club nor snowmobilers supported this compromise.
The Forest Service asked for comments on the 2005 snowmobile management plan, and generated but did not circulate an Environmental Assessment (EA). Over 14,000 comments were received on the plan, almost entirely negative. Nevertheless, the Service approved the plan. The Sierra Club Range of Light Group and others appealed. The appeals were denied.
Environmental issues raised include degraded water quality, threats to endangered species, and damage to habitat. The Service ignored the interests of traditional non-motorized users such as backcountry skiers. The EA also provides evidence that the Service favored snowmobile use because of the money charged for commercial use permits. Some 50 citations were issued for filming in the area without a permit, while only two were issued for trespass into adjacent wilderness.
The Sierra Club, along with the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Forest Service charging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Trails System Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. Snowlands Network and the Winter Wildlands Alliance filed an amicus brief, alleging that the Forest Service had neglected the interests of skiers and other self-powered users in its NEPA review. Unfortunately, the Sierra Club and its co-plaintiffs were not able to persuade the court either to order the Forest Service to reinstate its historic snowmobile ban for the area or to redo its NEPA review. The parties have reluctantly decided not to appeal.
© 2008 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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