SIERRA CITY, Calif. — The debate over snowmobile access in the Tahoe National Forest has turned ugly.
Emails, social media posts and online comments with foul and abusive language prompted Forest Service officials to disable a portion of an online comment system, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported last week.
Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Eli Ilano said he has never seen anything like this.
“It is discouraging because it is not promoting public discourse on the topic,” he said.
Supporters of the proposal pushing for more restrictions in the 1,250-square-mile (3,238-square-kilometer) area have been the targets of the online abuse, including anti-gay slurs, foul language and references to violence.
“It is not about having a dialogue, it is not about communicating,” said Gail Ferrell, vice president of outreach for the nonprofit advocacy group Snowlands. “It is just about attempting to demoralize us, which it does not do.”
Officials fear the hostility in the comments section might deter the public from sharing their input on the Tahoe National Forest Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation plan.
The five-county area that the forest spans has more than 3,500 registered snowmobiles.
Behind all the vitriol is tension between snowmobilers who use machines to access the forest in winter and people who visit on skis, snowboards and snowshoes.
Forest Service rules require management of over-snow vehicle use in all national forests with significant snowmobile traffic. The settlement covers five forests in California, including the Tahoe forest. The Tahoe Forest stretches from the northwest edge of the Lake Tahoe Basin near Tahoe City to the southern edge of the Plumas National Forest. Its eastern edge reaches nearly to Verdi and the western edge nearly to Nevada City.
The proposed plan is more than a decade in the making and will define which parts of the forest are open to snowmobile riding decades into the future.
Snowmobile riders see the effort as a threat to future access.
Matt Hamilton of Verdi said he worries new restrictions will make it more difficult for him and his wife, Emily, to share the forest with their 9-month-old son, Dodge, who has a disability that will prevent him from walking.
“I really fell in love with the ability to get out into the backcountry and have that experience,” Hamilton said. “The thought of not being able to show my son that makes me feel ill.”
Although some of the proposals would reduce acreage open to snowmobile use, all the proposed options would either expand or maintain nearly all of the mileage of groomed trails already available.
While some snowmobile riders are worried about losing forest access, others who have studied the proposal say potential losses are less drastic than some perceive.
“We are not trying to get rid of snowmobiling altogether,” said Jim Gibson, vice president and secretary of Snowlands. “We just think the current 85/15 split . needs more balance.”
Much of the acreage that would be off-limits to snowmobiles in the preferred alternative, for example, is below 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) in elevation and often lacks the snow depth needed to operate the machines.