About halfway through the lecture on “Federal Agencies and NEPA,” I really started wondering why I was there.
Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) is a non-profit that advocates for what they call “quiet winter use,” meaning they’re anti snowmobile. Most of you Wildsnowers know I’m a recreation advocate who, while seeing the need for non-motorized areas, is uncomfortable with how much we divide and regulate recreation on non-wilderness land.
Hence, I did feel out of place at WWA’s annual conference. Sure, in terms of backcountry skiing many kindred souls were present, but I kept wondering what they really thought of our Yamaha and what new use restrictions they were cooking up. Luckily motorized recreation activist Jack Welch was attending, so he balanced things out a bit and I felt more comfortable.
NEPA is of course the National Environmental Policy Act, the famed law (signed into being by none other than President Richard Nixon, imagine that) which forces our government to look at how the human world impacts the natural world. Enactment of NEPA being a somewhat revolutionary event in the history of governance (or something like Moses and the tablets if you talk to certain people — and there is probably some truth to that).
At any rate, it was obvious I was in for an earful after about 15 minutes of the lawyer waxing on about NEPA. Six hours and at least that many presentations later, with my legs approaching thrombosis from too much chair, I was definitely thinking about the snow in Montezuma Basin and how to improve how our Jeep worked for access to such. But I have to admit that my level of knowledge about environmental activism has definitely received a boost, and that’ll help inform this blog.
A couple of take-homes:
Most interesting to me is how snowmobiling has been passed over in much of National Forest travel planning. Turns out that the USFS Travel Management Rule, which takes an immense amount of time and money to implement (not to mention enforce), simply does not apply to snowmobiles unless the forest manager decides to include snowmobile in the process. Since it takes even more money and time to include winter use, forest managers tend to not do so. Thus, managing snowmobile use has been tough no matter which side of the fence you’re on, as there is still no real nationwide system in place for doing so.
Quite a few guys from the USFS were there and gave presentations. So another take-home was just how embroiled this group of activists and the USFS are in the “spend and control” view of managing things. What really brought this home to me was their talk about Vail Pass, where heavy winter use has led to the solution of charging a stiff daily user fee ($6.00 per person), which in turn finances education and enforcement.
All well and good, till you find out that a hefty percentage of winter use on Vail Pass is from outfitters and their customers. In other words, the crowding might be caused in large part by commercial use. Knowing that, I can’t help but wonder if the average non-commercial day user is paying a fee so the USFS can manage crowding caused in good part by commercial use? In other words, we’re being asked to support people’s business endeavors with what is pretty much a defacto tax, and a regressive one at that.
The situation reminds me of how we’re taxed here in our region to support a bus system that mostly benefits business in Aspen (by providing transport for massive amounts of inexpensive immigrant labor). You look at the details, and you wonder if business shouldn’t be shouldering more of the burden (or perhaps just paying people more)? But then, you consider the economic engine business provides and how much value their customers get, so perhaps they should be subsidized in various ways? Interesting questions, anyway.
As for Vail Pass in particular, perhaps the solution they’ve implemented is a necessary evil. Time will tell. But I have to admit to some amazement that the solution of simply providing a few more trailheads to reduce crowding is rarely mentioned. Doing so just seems like such a nobrainer, instead of all this endless effort to cut up the pie, charge user fees, have enforcers on site, etc.
Specifically, the northerly side of Interstate 70 at Vail Pass is defacto non-motorized as it butts up to legal Wilderness. But you can’t park there even though perfectly adequate road access exists (parking is reserved for commercial use). To not have public parking available there, in light of the crowding problem, seems insane to me. But then, I’m just a user digging for $6.00 of coins in my center console.
Winter Wildlands directer Mark Menlove invited me to the Conference (thanks Mark) to sit on a panel about “hybrid” snowmobile use, meaning folks who use sleds to either access skiing, or as a substitute for ski lifts (I’m in the former category, thank you very much.)
Our panel convened when everyone was somewhat burned, but we got in some interesting discussion anyway. Panelists were Wildlands director Mark Menlove, Ben Bartosz of a snowcat skiing operation, USFS recreation manager Tim Lamb, and myself.
As hybrid skiing was a relatively new concept to many of the folks in the room (many who’d grown up in the tradition that skiers used lifts and toured, while snowmobilers rode), most of our panel talk was about what hybrid skiers do and how they do it. I had fun describing things like ghost riding and steering side-by-side. You could see a few jaws drop when I mentioned that I expected to see a remote control system for snowmobile operation come out withing the next five years (so you can ride up, send your sled down the hill, then make turns).
I also got in a mention about how important snowmobiles have become to snow-season alpinism here in Colorado. Which I hope got some of the climbers in the room thinking about how these issues are not so black and white, and that some of the snowmobile routes they may be thinking about closing could have more purpose than just being fodder for sled heads.
The concept of backcountry skiers who use snowmobiles really does fly in the face of much the Winter Wildlands Alliance is based on. So I didn’t hear any concrete ideas on where they’ll go with the issue. One guy mentioned that you can’t just keep dividing the land up for different uses, and that we have to work on other types of solutions. I’ll second that emotion.
In all, the conference got me thinking we need to take care of crowding and user conflicts — but that we all, motorized, quiet or hybrid, should be on guard about the cure being worse than the disease.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.