Action Alert: Winter Travel Planning Begins on the Rio Grande National Forest

Help shape the future of winter recreation on the Rio Grande National Forest. Learn how to participate in the over-snow-vehicle planning process today!
Felicia Brower Felicia Brower
June 04, 2024

This post is shared from our partner Winter Wildlands Alliance. Click here to see their original post.

It may be spring, but in southwest Colorado, we are excited about winter travel planning! The Rio Grande National Forest recently began a winter travel planning process that will ultimately designate routes and areas for over-snow vehicle (OSV) use across the 1.8-million-acre Rio Grande National Forest.

Why is winter travel planning on the Rio Grande important?

From the deep snows of Wolf Creek Pass to the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, the Rio Grande supports a wide range of winter recreation opportunities. Rare, endangered lynx also roam the Rio Grande’s snowy forests. This winter travel plan is our chance to protect quiet recreation and wildlife on the Rio Grande by better managing OSV use.

What is being proposed?

On April 30, the Forest Service published a Proposed Action and Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this project. The agency is proposing to designate 74% of the Rio Grande (1,382,276 acres) for OSV use, along with 260 miles of groomed OSV routes. Read the Proposed Action on the Forest Service project page here.

The Proposed Action that the Rio Grande has provided is just a starting point based on Winter Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) maps that the forest recently published. These maps zone the forest for desired recreational settings, including suitability for motorized use. Importantly, there is a distinct difference between ROS mapping and motorized use designations. ROS mapping defines which areas can be considered for OSV designations (Rural, Roaded Natural, and Semi-Primitive Motorized are all settings where OSV use is suitable). Before designating any areas for OSV use within these ROS zones, the Forest Service must conduct a site-specific environmental review taking into account impacts to wildlife, natural resources, and other recreational uses. This environmental review is travel management planning.   

What’s happening now?

We are in the initial phase of the travel planning process (scoping) where the public can provide input on the proposed action and suggest alternatives. During scoping, the Forest Service seeks comments from the public to identify key issues and concerns.

This feedback helps the Forest Service develop multiple alternatives based on the comments received and other information gathered during this scoping period. The final plan will be based on these alternatives and the Proposed Action.

Why is the Proposed Action concerning?

The Rio Grande’s Proposed Action is unacceptable for several reasons.

  • Compliance Issues: It does not comply with the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule’s “closed unless designated open” requirement. This rule mandates that national forests are closed to OSV use outside of specifically designated areas.
  • Intensive OSV Use: Instead, the Rio Grande is proposing to designate almost all of the non-Wilderness lands on the forest for OSV use without adequately minimizing, or even considering site-specific impacts to wildlife and natural resources or conflicts with other uses.
  • High-Value Non-Motorized Areas: It is concerning that the vast majority of non-Wilderness lands on the forest are proposed to be designated for OSV use, including high-value non-motorized areas and places with longstanding use conflict.
  • Snow Depths: We support the Rio Grande’s proposal to require at least 12 inches of snow for OSV use to help protect natural resources. This 12 inch minimum, adopted by forests in California where OSV planning has occurred, has a solid rationale. However, given that the snow on the Rio Grande is generally lighter and drier than in the Sierras, we think it is important that the Forest Service analyze deeper options for minimum snow depths, to ensure the minimum snow depth achieves the intended purpose.
How can we learn from the past experiences?

We look forward to applying the lessons we have learned from nine years of winter travel planning in California to the Rio Grande’s planning process. We aim to incorporate management priorities that we have learned from partners and locals who live and ski on the Rio Grande. 

How can you get involved?

This scoping comment period is your opportunity to tell the Forest Service what matters to you regarding winter travel management on the Rio Grande.

If you visit the Rio Grande in the winter, it is crucial you share your experiences and priorities in a comment letter. The Forest Service must minimize OSV impacts to wildlife and natural resources and minimize conflicts between OSV use and other uses.

Even if you have never been to the Rio Grande, you can still submit a substantive comment letter. Comment letters that share ideas for how the Forest Service can meet these requirements are also very helpful. 

How can you comment?

We have put together a simple comment letter for you to sign on to, highlighting Winter Wildlands Alliance’s priorities.

You can also submit your own comment letter online using the Forest Service’s CARA form. If you recreate on the Rio Grande, we encourage you to describe the specific places that you think should or should not be designated for OSV use and how you think these places should be managed. If you have experience with OSV management or planning elsewhere, sharing advice from that experience is also very helpful. 

If you draft your own letter, consider including and elaborating on the following points:

  • Compliance with the OSV Rule: The Proposed Action is not in compliance with the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule’s “closed unless designated open” framework. All alternatives developed for this EIS must designate and analyze discrete, delineated OSV areas.
  • Minimizing Conflict: To minimize conflicts between OSV use and other winter recreation uses (skiing, snowshoeing, etc.), the Forest Service must consider snow quality, noise impacts, air quality, and public safety. The final OSV plan should not designate high-value non-motorized recreation areas, such as Nordic ski trails and terrain around backcountry huts or adjacent to ski areas, for OSV use. Important quiet winter recreation areas on the forest include:
    • Big Meadows Ski Trail
    • Rock Creek Ski Trail
    • Lime Creek Trail
    • Neff Mountain, near Cumbres Pass
    • Lobo Peak, on Wolf Creek Pass
    • Terrain surrounding the Spruce Hole Yurt
    • Terrain surrounding the Pass Creek Yurt
    • The “Matchless” area adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area
    • Big Meadows Reservoir Area, south of Forest Road 410
  • Wildlife Protection: To minimize impacts to wildlife, the Forest Service should follow recommendations from Colorado Parks and Wildlife pertaining to big game winter activity areas, winter wildlife areas, and riparian/wetland areas. The plan must also comply with the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment.
  • Minimum Snow Depth: Support using a minimum snow depth as a means to minimize impacts to natural resources. The EIS should also analyze a deeper minimum snow depth to determine if the proposed 12” is sufficient to protect subnivean habitat, soils, and vegetation. The EIS must also consider how OSV use will affect natural resources that may not be protected by a minimum snow depth, such as water quality and trees. 
  • Enforcement: Enforcement should be a consideration from the start of this planning process. The EIS should describe how the Rio Grande will implement and enforce the final plan. Designated OSV boundaries should follow obvious physical or topographic features like plowed roads or ridgelines.


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