Snowmobiles May Stall In Stanislaus Forest

News By Joe Klarer, Calaveras Enterprise
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The Stanislaus National Forest soon won’t allow the free-range access for snowmobiles that would have been allowed this year, had there been any snow.

About 15 people, including Calaveras County Supervisors Cliff Edson and Michael Oliveira, made their way to the Calaveras Ranger District office in Hathaway Pines recently for a meeting with U.S. Forest Service representatives, who are in the early stages of creating a new forest plan. Due to litigation involving the Forest Service from a 2013 case in Idaho, the Stanislaus National Forest is now one of five California forests that are part of a settlement that means they will have to regulate snowmobile access and travel.

Sue Warren, the Forest Service’s project manager, who happens to be retiring in a few weeks, explained that the main focus is designating which areas are and aren’t fit for snowmobile access.

“Currently, the whole forest, if it has 12 inches of snow or more, is available, except for wilderness, because we don’t have any orders to enforce the forest plan,” she said. “But we’re going to implement the forest plan, so it zooms down to about 100,000 acres of snowmobiling, and roughly 370,000 acres that won’t have snowmobile access, and that’s everything above 5,000 feet of elevation.”

The forest representatives were and are asking for public turnout and comment on what are proposed changes to areas of snowmobile access. The forest plan isn’t scheduled to be finished and implemented until early 2017, a date Warren thinks should be advanced, and the coming weeks will be the first of three “open comment periods” when public opinion, preferably in written form, will be accepted and reviewed.

Warren and others with the Stanislaus National Forest are hoping for plenty of comment as early on as possible to explore the different options with “designating snow trails and areas to ride during times of year, as well as some criteria we’re trying to add in to protect frogs and toads, and public safety,” Warren said.

However, the proposal still necessitates a lot of research, some of which can’t be done as well with the recent lack of snow.

“It’s problematic to figure out what you’re doing when you don’t have that consistent snowfall,” Warren said.

An area of concern the forest can address with the required snowmobile area changes are the effects snowmobiles may have on the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the Yosemite toad, both of which reside under the snow’s surface through the winter.

“We don’t know a whole lot about how snowmobiles affect frogs and toads,” Warren said.

Derrick Bawdon, an aquatic biologist with the Stanislaus National Forest, said the frog and toad species are endangered, but have relative abundance from 5,000 feet to 12,000 feet of elevation.

“There’s quite a bit of activity between the snow and the ground, a lot more than people think,” said Bawdon.

It will more likely be a favorite snowmobile zone being cut off, and not the potential harming of frogs and toads, that gets the public upset, as was the general feel of the recent meeting.

“The thing that will probably be most concerning to folks is that they’ve been able to ride in Pacific Valley, off of Highway 4, and we’re suggesting that they now not, because it’s a small corridor to ride in and is designated semi-primitive, non-motorized,” Warren said. “Why they’ve been riding in there before I’m not sure, but we haven’t had the wherewithal to enforce it. Enforcement’s going to be a big issue as well, with any decision.”

“What they propose with Pacific Valley takes away too much,” said attendee and snowmobiler Greg Jensen. “If you look at the trail system, it’s pretty much all just groomed trail. There are not too many places you can take off and actually do anything.”

District Ranger Teresa McClung made a point to emphasize that they still want the forest to be as accessible and fun for snowmobiling as possible, and that opportunities to have the plan open Pacific Valley or other areas to snowmobiles will arise.

“There are some folks who want to see us open it up, and we can entertain that idea through this process. It requires a forest plan amendment,” McClung said. “... We have to evaluate all the environmental impacts, effects to species, effects to soils, effects to watershed vegetation, also recreation use patterns, and maybe some economic use patterns.”

Sentiments are that when the dust settles, the rules for snowmobiles will nearly mirror the rules for all-terrain vehicles, necessitating trails.

“I think they’re trying to take away a lot of stuff that will affect the community,” said David Wagner of Arnold. “For California, we’re one of the best areas to snowmobile in. If they keep shutting it down, it’s just more closing that’s going to shut this Highway 4 corridor down.”

The Stanislaus Forest is currently in the process of uploading a map to their website that will show the proposed snowmobile area restrictions, but currently the only way to view all the potential changes is by attending a meeting similar to the recent meeting.

??Contact Dana M. Nichols at dana@calaverasenterprise.com or call 498-2052.

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