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Funds Denied for Some Snowmobile Trails in Sierra

State panel cites usage conflicts and pollution. Critics fear effect on tourism, wildlife.

October 23, 2002|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

A state commission concerned about winter air pollution and recreational conflicts has denied funding for 413 miles of snowmobile trails in the Sierra Nevada.

According to officials of the state agency that administers off-highway vehicle recreation programs, the decision by the California Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Commission will close 20% of state-maintained trails used by snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and others and will cost rural communities that depend on winter tourism $6.5 million.

The affected trails are in four national forests: the Humboldt-Toiyabe, Eldorado, Lake Tahoe Basin and Sequoia. Funding was denied for the first three. The issue was tabled for the Sequoia forest, and state officials doubt that the grant will be approved.

The commission approved funding for trails in nine other national forests.

National forests routinely request grants from the commission for winter trail grooming and related law enforcement and conservation programs. State officials said that without properly maintained and monitored trails, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in the affected forests will be unsafe.

"What's disturbing about all of this is that law enforcement is a critical part of this," said Barry Jones, who administers the $16-million off-highway vehicle grant program under the jurisdiction of California State Parks. "Search and rescue is going to be tough. In some of these areas the only way to get injured people out is on groomed trails."

Critics contended that the seven-member commission's actions are politically motivated and will do unintended harm to wildlife, watersheds and wilderness areas.

"I think it's an agenda by a group of people -- three appointees who micromanage the commission based on their anti-off- highway vehicle beliefs," said Ron Rawlings, former president of the California-Nevada Snowmobile Assn.

The three members who voted against funding said they have no agenda other than better management of forest resources. The three prevailed because of the absence of one member, and a tie vote denied funding.

The opponents said their votes were based mainly on three concerns: the effect of high-polluting snowmobiles on the air around Lake Tahoe; conflicts with other trail users, especially cross-country skiers; and inequities in the funding program that allow snowmobile users to get more money back in state services than they put in.

Harold Thomas, a Sacramento attorney, voted to deny funds in the Lake Tahoe area, where he said snowmobile engines exacerbate an existing environmental problem: fallout from air pollution that is stimulating the growth of algae and changing the color of the famously blue lake.

"I don't think we want to be spending state funds to worsen the clarity problem in Lake Tahoe by encouraging more snowmobiles in the airshed," Thomas said.

The state's Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Program began in 1971 and is funded by a fuel tax on four-wheel-drive vehicles and other off-road machines. David Widell, deputy director of the program, said it was rare for winter grants to be declined.

Some commissioners said the problem lies with the U.S. Forest Service. They said national forests have grown accustomed to the yearly grant money and thus don't budget for winter trail maintenance, making it difficult to find money should grants from the commission be denied.

"What we are seeing is that federal agencies are using this fund to support their core operations, which was not intended," said Paul Spitler, who voted against the grant requests. "It puts us in a bad situation, but it makes the federal agencies look irresponsible. If these programs are such a priority for the forests, how come the federal government doesn't fund them?"

California's national forests have 1,900 miles of groomed trails. The packed snow on those trails makes travel easier for novice snowmobilers; the trails also are sought out by some cross-country skiers, dogsledders and snowshoers. Without maintained trails, critics said, snowmobilers could get trapped in deep snow or inadvertently wander into wilderness areas, where vehicles are prohibited.

State parks are not open to snowmobiles.

Critics countered that groomed trails are no deterrent to the growing number of snowmobilers who ignore wilderness prohibitions.

Grooming grants also are used to clear parking lots and maintain restrooms and warming huts. Some revenue from the fuel tax is used for watershed and wildlife protection and for law enforcement.

For John Frazier, who has run a snowmobiling resort in Pioneer near the Kirkwood ski area for 25 years, no trails means no customers.

"This could put me out of business. I'm going to lay off at least 50% of my employees," Frazier said. He said he will lose his contract to groom trails with the Eldorado National Forest.

"Everyone here is talking about it," he said. "It's our livelihood they're messing with."

Officials of the state's off-highway vehicle program said it is possible that the commission could reconsider its actions at its December meeting.

"We truly have a problem on our hands," said David Widell, deputy director of the off-highway vehicle program. "We still don't know what happened. At the end of the day this vote may have been inevitable, but I don't think it was responsible."

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