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Managing Our Winter Wildlands is Necessary and Better Done Together

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By DAVID PAGE | Mammoth Lakes

By now you’ll have heard that the Tahoe and Eldorado national forests are in the midst of a historic planning process to analyze and designate specific zones for different, not-always-compatible types of winter recreation. The basic idea — first mandated way back under Nixon and then reinforced under the second Bush administration (which a dozen years ago cited unmanaged recreation as one of the top four threats facing our national forests, along with fire and fuels, invasive species, and loss of open space) — is to find ways to minimize recreational impacts to natural resources and wildlife, and to minimize user conflict while upholding the forest service’s fundamental multi-use mandate.

It’s a tall order. Especially for a public land management agency that’s understaffed, chronically starved of resources, deeply unpopular among — even hated by — some of the people it serves, and literally scrambling to put out fires on multiple fronts. But, given explosive trends in population, urbanization, over-tourism, and the penetration of technology into every crevice of our lives, it’s a process that’s long overdue.

There are more of us than ever — more every year — out playing and exploring on our public lands in every season and by every possible means and conveyance. Solitude is harder and harder to find. The unrestricted wildness we all need, however we define it or access it, is a fast-diminishing resource. And now, to make things even worse, there’s less snow than there used to be. We all feel the squeeze.

For those of us who live on the edges of these last great open spaces and have spent the best part of our lives in the woods and on windy ridgelines and in the snow, there’s a deep sense of loss. Whether we’re ripping across an open meadow on a snowmobile or pausing on a steep boot pack to hear the sound of air beneath a raven’s wings, whether we’re walking the dog along a stream or just looking out the window wishing we were there, these mountains more than anything else represent a kind of freedom that is absolutely essential to who we are. That we cannot live without.

We can sit back and blame the government for trying to restrict that freedom. We can shut our ears against our neighbors’ complaints, shout at each other on social media. We can blame the environmentalists, or the corporations, or the lawyers, or Patagonia. We can blame — as Dennis Troy did a few weeks back in the pages of this paper — some scrappy, national coalition of backcountry skiers and riders with four underpaid employees crammed into a tiny office in Boise, another at her kitchen table in Bozeman, and me in my basement in Mammoth Lakes. Or we can look to ourselves, rise up to the ideals of our democracy, sit down with our fellow citizens, and get to work finding ways to preserve the individual freedoms we all cherish on the lands we own together.

For the first time in history, we the public have a chance to be heard on a wide range of alternatives for how winter recreation in all its forms should be managed on our national forests — not just on our local forest but on every forest in the country that gets enough snow to ski, snowboard, snowshoe, bike, and ride snowmobiles on.
We can have restrictions thrust upon us by the agency charged with the impossible task of representing us all. Or we can look hard at the actual plans and proposals, recognizing that our individual needs and desires may have unintended impacts on others, and together make some of the hard choices and compromises required to preserve the diversity of experiences that keep our local economies afloat and make up who we are.

This is who we are. This is what we need. Let’s figure it out together. For info, visit tahoebackcountryalliance.org or winterwildlands.org/sierranevada.

~ David Page lives in Mammoth Lakes, on the edge of the Inyo National Forest. He is a senior correspondent for Powder Magazine and serves as advocacy director for Winter Wildlands Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of local grassroots groups working to protect human-powered winter experiences on public lands across the country.

 
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The Opinion Page is your place to spout off. This section contains letters to the editor and longer My Shot pieces. Also, the Spout features two bimonthly perspectives — In the Past, delving into Tahoe Truckee history, and In the Moment, an artistic musing of a moment today.

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October 11, 2018