A line in the snow

Times Staff Writer

The trees of Hope Valley are flocked and stately. All along Forestdale Creek Road, about a dozen miles south of Lake Tahoe, the scenery is straight out of the Hallmark winter collection. But don't be deceived. In the nationwide scuffle between snowmobilers and those who scorn them, this is contested territory.

"You can hear them for miles," says Debbi Waldear, a champion cross-country skier and longtime local crusader against snowmobile traffic. Then she returns to her smooth stroke and long strides, a tiny, wiry figure gliding through pines on a lonely weekday afternoon. Her dog, Sage, bounds alongside.

"To sit on something and go fast," says Waldear, "is not at all attractive to me."

At the moment, thanks to a federal judge in Sacramento, Waldear and fellow crusaders are down, and the snowmobilers are on top. But this battle has been seesawing for 12 years, and nobody expects it to end soon. If the big noise in Hope Valley has shown anything, it's that snowmobilers are from Mars and skiers are from Venus.

Twenty hours after Waldear slides past, Pliny Olivier, a tall, gregarious man in a black cowboy hat, stands at the trailhead, unloading his trailer and getting ready to race his 140-horsepower Polaris down the same snow-covered dirt road.

"I really don't understand cross-country skiers," says Olivier in his Louisiana drawl. "I can get to a place in half an hour on a snowmobile that they can't get to unless they pack food for a week!"

He hauls down his 485-pound machine, revs the two-stroke engine until he's seated in his own little emission cloud. Next he'll wrap his fingers around the heated handlebars and roar down the road, snowflakes stinging his cheeks.

"You know what?" he says. "This might be the most fun you'll ever have in your life."

A case study This dust-up may look like small change next to the snowmobile squabbles in high-profile territories such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, or Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park. For that matter, there's a bigger ruckus between snowmobilers and skiers just up the road in Tahoe Meadows, where snowmobiles lost a big chunk of territory three years ago and skiers are on the lookout for scofflaws riding outside the lines.

But Hope Valley may be significant because it's quieter and lonelier than those other battlegrounds. And Waldear and Olivier are a big part of the picture.

The population of Alpine County is about 1,200. More than 90% of this enclave in the Sierra, just south of Lake Tahoe, is state or federal land. Though the dispute means plenty to Sorensen's Resort, a historic haven for Nordic skiers on California Highway 88, there is no big money to be claimed here by either side.

Forestdale Creek Road, which apparently goes back to ranching days in the 19th century, is in the middle of the tug of war. About seven miles long and 7,500 feet above sea level, it rolls gently between trees for about three miles before crossing a creek and climbing toward a series of bowls and more-demanding territory.

Its early stretches are ideal for beginning skiers and snowmobilers alike. Because it usually gathers snow earlier and retains it longer than other routes, it's a prime shortcut if you're on a snowmobile and headed for the backcountry. In the last few years, young adventurers have taken to hitching rides into the Blue Lakes region on a buddy's snowmobile, then launching downhill on snowboards or setting off on telemark skis.

Yet there are still some winter days on the road when not a single skier or snowmobiler is seen. If ever a battleground looked ripe for a truce, it would be this one, right?

"When we took this case, that was my view of it," confesses attorney Debbie Sivas, director of the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. Now she knows better.

"It's nasty," says Patty Brissenden, who has owned Sorensen's Resort with her husband for 23 years.

"The environmentalists basically want to eliminate the motorized community from all public lands," says Olivier. Forestdale Creek Road, he says, "is a goal-line stand" for Hope Valley.

Dividing the spoils Every year, the legal wrangling gets more complicated. But at bottom, the argument is simple. Some nordic skiers and environmentalists, led by Waldear, want to move snowmobiles out of Hope Valley. Snowmobilers, most of whom don't mind sharing turf with skiers, want to hold onto the territory they've got.

The feud goes back to the early 1990s, when snowmobilers began turning up in the area in significant numbers and the U.S. Forest Service started revising plans for how this territory should be used. In many ways, the tussling has come down to three rural roads, all of which go unplowed in winter.

The motorized crowd has Blue Lakes Road, a 14-mile route where a state-run snow park welcomes snowmobiles and skiers alike. The muscle-powered crew has Burnside Lake Road, which was set aside more than a decade ago by Alpine County's supervisors and Forest Service officials as a motor-free playground. In the minds of many snowmobilers, this was the compromise that was supposed to bring peace in the valley.

Now, however, the spotlight has moved a few miles up Highway 88 to the meadows, hills and stands of pine along Forestdale Creek Road. In 1997 and in 2000, skiers sued the Forest Service, arguing that it wasn't doing enough to protect the interests of non-motorized users. But in a ruling last September, U.S. District Judge David Levi rebuffed the skiers and the Forest Service.

First, Levi ruled, the skiers can't expect the feds to restrict Forestdale Creek Road because it was apparently a county road before the feds ever arrived and therefore under jurisdiction of Alpine County's Board of Supervisors. Second, Levi ruled that the Forest Service hasn't done nearly enough research on alleged user conflicts to justify new limits on snowmobiles anywhere.

Not to be quieted, however, skiers have turned to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is pending. In the meantime, Forest Service rangers, who say they don't have the money to pay for research, have their hands full patrolling the forest, and occasionally citing snowmobilers who stray into forbidden wilderness areas.

"There is enough room to make this work," says Gary Schiff, the ranger in charge of Hope Valley and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest's Carson District. "But people have to come to the table and want to work it out."

Tough adversary Ask Debbi Waldear how she got so good at skiing so fast, and you hear a clue to how she's persisted through a dozen years of snowmobile skirmishing.

"Not everybody's really competitive. I am," says Waldear. "I don't like losing."

A wiry 55-year-old who stands just under 5 feet tall, Waldear was not born to snow country. She grew up in the Bay Area and only arrived here in the Sierra after college, aiming to spend a year as a ski bum. Instead she stayed, stepped into a pair of nordic skis and liked the fit.

Within two years of taking up cross-country skiing at age 30, she was winning statewide competitions. Since then, she's won eight worldwide master's championships. Now she lives in Markleeville, Alpine County's seat of local government, trains promising young skiers and manages the Kirkwood Cross-Country Ski Center, a few miles outside Hope Valley. She thrives, she says, on the endurance the sport demands and the solitude it delivers. But she's not as alone as she used to be.

Hence her other, nonpaying job as president of the Friends of Hope Valley. That group formed in the 1980s to keep a power-line project out of the area and later lobbied successfully for government acquisition of land in the valley.

Now snowmobiles dominate the agenda. Her group claims about 300 members, most of whom, Waldear acknowledges, live in the Bay Area. For expertise in their court battles, the Friends rely on the nonprofit eco-law firm Earthjustice, formerly known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Still, Waldear says, her group was ready to make a deal three years ago. The idea was to close Forestdale Creek Road to snowmobiles during the coldest months but open it in early and late winter when the snow is patchy on other access routes to the backcountry. But snowmobilers hated the idea and the county supervisors shot it down.

"There's so much fear in them about losing territory," Waldear says of the snowmobilers. "It seems to bring out the anger. And it's definitely gotten worse."

'I own this land' Pliny Olivier leans against one of his machines, gazing out at the woods. If he's not angry, he's certainly firm.

"I made a lot of money in this life, and I paid a lot of taxes," he says. "And I own this land."

He is no more native here than Waldear. He grew up poor, one of eight kids with a game warden dad, in the swamps of Louisiana. He found his way to college, moved to Florida, succeeded in business, semi-retired in his 50s, and fell in love with the Sierra.

Now, at 59, he lives far from the crayfish and crepe myrtles in Zephyr Cove, Nev., along the southeast edge of Lake Tahoe. In seven years as a full-time resident, he's accumulated five snowmobiles and the California Nevada Snowmobile Assn.'s prize as most dedicated snowmobiler of 2004. He is the president of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Assn., which claims about 60 members, most from the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

Given good snow, Olivier will go riding three times a week. Given a chance to introduce a newcomer to the sport, he'll block off a day, pack sandwiches, load up his trailer and head for the countryside.

"It's the most awesome nature experience you can have. There's no deer out here, nor bear, there's nothing to disturb. You're just making tracks on snow," he says.

There is, however, the exhaust. Though pollution hasn't been part of the legal wrangling, environmentalists point out the dirty little clouds that rise when someone yanks a starter cord and a snowmobile engine stirs to life. Olivier's favorite snowmobile, a Polaris, cost about $9,500 and carries an 800-cc engine. Like most snowmobiles, it gets a little under 10 miles per gallon. But technology is improving all the time, he notes, and these machines are getting steadily more efficient and quieter.

"They sound loud when you stand right next to them. But get 75 yards away and you can lose [track of] people," says Olivier. "It's not noisy — well, they might think it's noisy. But it's not noisy."

Competing needs Flag them down on the trail, and you find that many snowmobilers and skiers play together just fine. Larry Mainberger, a 70-year-old retiree from upstate New York, pauses on his skis along Blue Lakes Road. He used to snowmobile but isn't up to hauling the heavy machinery around anymore.

"You can hear them a long way off," says Mainberger. "But basically it's the smell of the belts burning that bothers most skiers. Smell that? That's the worst problem." Nevertheless, his prescription for Hope Valley is: "Leave it the way it is."

Rob Levy, Alpine County's undersheriff and an avid snowmobiler in his off-hours, thinks along the same lines.

"We don't manage by closure. We manage by providing multiple opportunities for folks that are designed in such a way that everyone can enjoy their recreation experience," he says.

Snowmobiling, he says, has "exploded" in Alpine County. "It's a great sport for a lot of people …. It's going to continue to expand and we have to come up with a good plan to manage that."

As a start, Levy has proposed a 20-mph speed limit on the most popular stretch of the Forestdale Creek Road. (Right now, snowmobilers can go as fast as seems "reasonable and prudent," but are supposed to drop down to 15 mph when passing a skier.) But like so many past compromise pitches, that's not going to please everyone.

"I'm a snowmobiler and I freaking hate cross-country skiers," says Jesse, a 23-year-old from Stateline, Nev., who declines to give a last name. "They're dangerous. They're in the way."

Skiers and snowmobilers "have to be separated," suggests 61-year-old Markleeville skier Jim Donald. "We just don't get along …. After they pass over a piece of ground, you can smell the oil and gas for hours sometimes."

The wall comes down Whether or not you want them roaring through your favorite woods, when you need to get somewhere quickly — say you have a medical emergency — snowmobiles can be handy machines.

A little after 3 p.m. on the day of Olivier's excursion to Forestdale Creek Road, the advancing hour and a worsening snowstorm drive him back to his SUV. He's lashing the snowmobiles to his trailer when a lone distraught skier straggles into view.

"Can you help us?" hollers Susan Burgers, 43. "We have a skier with a broken leg."

Burgers and her friend, who live in Watsonville, have been making winter visits and skiing on this trail for more than a decade; in fact, they like following the compacted snowmobile tracks. But today, in their haste to get out of the storm, they rushed themselves. Her friend got tangled up and went down hard.

She is down about a mile back, Burgers tells Olivier, unable to ski or walk. Snow is falling hard, there isn't another soul around and nobody can raise a cellphone signal.

Olivier yanks a snowmobile back off the trailer and zooms off into the woods. Minutes later, he's back with 45-year-old Diana Deering on board, one of her legs twisted like a pretzel in black snow pants.

Olivier, waving off her thanks, clears out room up front in his SUV so he can haul her to the hospital. Deering eyes the snowmobile.

"I have no idea why people are attracted to it," she says quietly. "But they are, and we have to respect that."

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