El Sendero Backcountry Ski and Snowshoe Club, has been working for 10+ years to establish a winter non-motorized area (NMA) on Washington State public lands just south and east of Wenatchee. The following description of the process was shared in the Winter Wildland’s Alliance article: Human-Powered Success in Washington’s Eastern Cascades.
In 2012, El Sendero saw an opportunity to achieve their vision of a winter non-motorized area through a local state land management planning effort: the Naneum Ridge to Columbia River Recreation and Access Plan planning process (“the Naneum Plan”). After 3 years of meetings, negotiations between stakeholders, and public comment opportunities, the Naneum Plan was signed and approved by Washington state officials in 2015. It called for two winter NMAs of just under 4,000 acres. One to be established just east of Mission Ridge Ski Resort in an area called the Stemilt Basin, and the other just west of the Ski Resort in the Clara Lakes area.
Once the Naneum Plan was signed, El Sendero was excited to move forward with signing the boundaries of the NMAs.
What took so long?
Before the boundary could be marked, the Chelan County Natural Resource Department decided to embark on a recreation planning effort within the Stemilt and Squilchuck basins to improve recreation opportunities and protect community values and natural resources. Much of this landscape overlapped with the area covered by the Naneum Plan, and the State land managers decided to delay winter NMA finalization until after the local planning effort was complete.
The draft Stemilt-Squilchuck Recreation Plan was released in 2018, complete with two winter NMAs, which were consistent with the Naneum Plan. Unfortunately, upon seeing the winter NMAs in the Stemilt-Squilchuck Draft Plan, a small number of motorized users (who had not participated in the past several years of negotiations and planning) loudly advocated for the County to eliminate the proposed winter NMAs in the final plan.
For the winter NMAs to be saved, backcountry skiers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers had to rally (again) and convince Chelan County to keep the NMAs in the plan. The final Stemilt-Squilchuck Recreation Plan was signed in September 2019 and included both NMAs, albeit with smaller acreage than the NMAs in the Draft Plan or the Naneum Plan.
A Decade of Work for El Sendero
Success was close at hand, but still, the work was not complete. El Sendero struggled with obtaining permission to create and install signs marking the NMA boundaries. Without the signs, the NMAs existed on paper only and were vulnerable to motorized intrusion for the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 ski seasons.
In April 2022, El Sendero finally received permission to install signs along one boundary of one of the non-motorized areas. The very same day that permission was granted, El Sendero board members began installing signs marking the most trafficked motorized intrusion point for the Lake Clara NMA. Within a week they protected the entire Clara NMA boundary with signs. They continue to work with the jurisdictions and hope to finish marking the balance of NMA boundaries soon.
After 10 years of dedicated effort, the dream has become a reality!
The two NMAs both have fantastic skiing and are accessible for day trips out of the ski area parking lot. The lower end of the Stemilt NMA is accessible from a snow park for quiet cross-country skiing and snowshoeing adventures.
Nine Reasons The Stemilt Basin Winter NMA Were Established
- The winter non-motorized areas are consistent with the larger state process of the Naneum Recreation Plan (approved two years ago). The Naneum Plan clearly mandated a winter NMA in the Stemilt Basin and in the area surrounding Clara Lake. The total acreage for the proposed NMA is less than 4,000 acres, leaving snowmobilers with 226,000 acres of terrain for their recreation in the Stemilt Basin and in the adjacent state land covered in the Naneum Recreation Plan (the winter NMA is only 1.7% of the total). Scale this to a 2,300 square foot home and the proposed winter NMA is the home’s coat closet.
- Non-motorized winter recreation in aggregate (snowshoers plus backcountry skiers plus cross-country skiers) is a much larger user group (over 9 million people nationally) than snowmobilers (under 1.5 million people nationally). Non-motorists deserve space and opportunities in winter.
- Non-motorized winter sports are still growing quickly while snowmobile sales have declined steadily for 15 years. The Stemilt Recreation Plan does a good job of looking at current and future trends when it proposes wintertime non-motorized areas.
- Currently there are 170 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and zero miles of winter non-motorized trails in the Naneum-Colockum area. Likewise, there are over 185 parking spaces for winter motorized users and none for non-motorized users.
- These are public lands so no single user group should have a stranglehold. Both the Naneum and Stemilt recreation plans vision statements call for a balance of shared recreational use.
- The location of the proposed winter NMA is sensible because the land is among the most easily accessed for the largest number of recreationalists who snowshoe, ski, or winter walk. Furthermore, the proposed non-motorized zone flanks the Mission Ridge Ski Area which does not allow public snowmobile use. This means the winter NMA will see far fewer violations because the ski area protects several boundaries from misuse.
- Snowmobilers maintain we can all share the same areas but that’s like arguing basketball players should be happy playing hoop on a football field. Or that pedestrians should have no problem sharing sidewalks with cars. Non-motorists need separation for safe, high-quality recreational experiences. Several National Forest in the Western snowbelt realize this and are seeing good results by separating users with different needs.
- Non-motorists like neither the noise nor fumes of snowmobiles. Non-motorists also sometimes feel unsafe around the speed of snowmobiles (especially true of parents skiing or snowshoeing with children). Snowmobiles quickly track out the untracked-snow experience backcountry skiers seek and occasionally the deep ruts left by machines are injury hazards to skiers coming downhill. Finally backcountry skiers ascending steeper slopes can be exposed to unexpected avalanche hazard if snowmobilers arrive and begin high-marking the same slopes.
- Snowmobilers may question the need for non-motorized areas because they don’t see snowshoers or skiers in the areas they frequent. This is not because the non-motorized crowd doesn’t exist but testimony to the fact that non-motorists avoid places with heavy snowmobile use. Establish non-motorized zones in the Stemilt Basin and people will use them.