With more winter backcountry users and a scarcity of good snow and terrain, is it time for a unified voice to mitigate conflicts?
Since last fall, WildSnow has covered in some detail the ongoing challenges of managing Teton bighorn sheep and winter backcountry access. As proponents of silent sport, I think it’s tough to imagine our relatively benign pursuit as disruptive.
All the words, interviews, and map analysis to learn more about the sheep/winter backcountry access issue had me tunneling down several rabbit holes. As winter backcountry use proliferates, sheep may not be the only canary in the coal mine. In the Wind Rivers this May, large tracks ascending towards Jackass Pass startled me; they seemed bear-sized. One of my partners on the traverse, who’s knowledgeable about things game and fish, said, “wolverine.”
Those storied and elusive animals are known to travel crazy distances and occupy massive home ranges. We eventually lost the tracks as we dropped into the Cirque of the Towers and skinned towards Texas Pass.
Short story; after reporting on the Teton bighorn sheep winter backcountry travel survey results on July 8, I became curious about what other wildlife might be impacted by winter backcountry users. What comes next is speculation, but my readings on wolverines (which lack protections under the Endangered Species Act) and learning about their sensitivity to human disturbances got me thinking of what ski zones might be off limits next.
The op-eds we published on the Teton sheep, pro and con, raised interesting points about how we as a community can be participants and problem solvers on issues of winter backcountry access. But, what appears to matter is being organized and thoughtful and knowing when to take hard stances and make compromises, even when it means limiting our access to world-class ski terrain.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at some advocacy groups involved with winter backcountry access issues.
The Teton Backcountry Alliance:
Mission Statement: Teton Backcountry Alliance (TBCA) is a grassroots organization dedicated to Teton-area winter backcountry recreation and recreationist effects on our environment, wildlife, and other people. Our mission is to promote public safety, community, stewardship, and sustainable access for Teton-area winter backcountry users. TBCA addresses these goals through dialogue, public information, problem solving, and advocacy. Launched in 2017, TBCA is currently focused on maintaining winter backcountry use on Teton Pass, mitigating bighorn sheep-skier interactions, and educating stakeholders about proposed local ski area expansions.
Wasatch Backcountry Alliance:
Mission Statement: “Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA) is the recognized voice for the backcountry community involved in human-powered winter recreation in the Central Wasatch Mountains. We represent a unified voice to media, partners, elected officials, and the general public. We focus on providing advocacy to support our causes, and serve as a central information venue for related topics.”
Current advocacy involves a full court press regarding proposed actions to alleviate traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, which includes a proposed gondola. WildSnow will report on this issue next month, but the WBA’s The Uptrack podcast provides all the background you’ll need to catch up on the issue.
Tahoe Backcountry Alliance:
Mission Statement: “The Tahoe Backcountry Alliance is the voice for the human-powered winter backcountry community in the Lake Tahoe area, advocating for and informing our community about critical issues affecting winter backcountry recreation in and around Tahoe.”
You can find more information on the TBA’s current projects here.
Granite Backcountry Alliance:
Partial mission statement: “GBA resolves to improve the playing field for backcountry skiers. Creating and developing ski glades, however, is not the only objective of the group. Improving the foundation of the sport is critical to future success, such as creating partnerships and collaboration with public and private landowners, education regarding safety and ecological awareness, and creating a unified culture – one that respects the land and its owners and does not permit unauthorized cutting. Read the full mission statement here.”
The GBA is involved in creating glade skiing in the Northeast.
I know, not an exhaustive list in the least. Please infill in the comments if you know of a backcountry ski/riding advocacy group that readers should be aware of.
Do we need a collective voice?
My primary ski partner wrote an op-ed for WildSnow months ago; give it a read: “Where We Ski: A Federal Lands Primer.” Like many things WildSnow, the comments added depth to the discussion. We’ll get back to the comments in a few. But first, an admission of sorts. I purchased a 2011 Skidoo snowmachine last fall. In total, I machined into a wilderness boundary on eight occasions last season. Before that, I received a motor-assisted tow four times (all within the previous two years). Ask John, the author of the op-ed noted above; I was an anti-sled zealot for years. Considering their din, we referred to snowmachines/sleds as Orks when we heard them on our tours. I suppose, for the time being, I’ve joined the ranks of the Orks. Adding to my footprint, I’ve been backcountry skiing since 1992; I usually drive a car to access skiing.
I believe in our concept of Wilderness. I believe in finding silence too. So no motors in specific zones aligns with my values. And maybe I’ve backed myself into a corner here by owning a snowmachine, and am a hypocrite.
I also believe we are at a point where perhaps we should build alliances with those outside our echo chamber. I’ve met plenty of kind snowmobilers as I’ve skinned into the backcountry. I’ve met kind backcountry skiers and split boarders, but it goes both ways; I’ve met not-so-kind skiers/riders and sledders. The issues involving Wilderness and non-wilderness and who gets to use these areas are complex. And they should be treated as such. The idea of Wilderness seems straightforward and reasonable — no motors. It gets spicier in non-wilderness where skiers, split boarders, and sledders share the terrain or must coexist in close proximity.
And clearly, with the Teton bighorn sheep issue coming to a head soon, wildlife concerns and our impact on them should also be part of the discussion. What exactly are we willing to give up regarding access to ski terrain if it helps protect wildlife? For those of us well beyond the Teton region, it’s time to consider how we would address a similar issue in our home mountain ranges.
Let’s get back to the comments from the primer on federal lands. Our own A.K. Mattix got me thinking about advocacy groups with broad versus narrowly focused missions and what serves the interests of the local backcountry community. (Read his full comment). In short, Mattix quotes the axiom, “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”
And Lou Dawson, in his comment, plopped another axiom into play, “he or she who divides gets the smallest share.”
I’m speaking to backcountry skiers/riders here, even those like myself who have accessed terrain riding a sled or been towed. Learning more about the Teton sheep and reading up on other potential issues that could impact my access to fine backcountry terrain has me asking this question: do we need a collective voice?
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.
Telluride Mountain Club is also a good addition to human powered rec advocacy groups. They’ve participated in many a discussion to open Bear Creek access, expand radio channels in the Telluride backcountry, and maintain communications with federal agencies.
I wholeheartedly agree with the need for all backcountry users to engage in civil dialogue to determine appropriate guidelines for land use. What I’m not sure about is how “one voice” would necessarily be better that an assortment of local groups dealing with the unique issues in that particular zone or region?
Hey Rob, thanks for this comment and clarification. I go back and forth on this, but I do side with your spot on point, that “one voice” should be regional with maybe an eye towards a broader collective voice.
– For another example of land closures due to animal conflict, see the Chic Choc (Quebec) closures for caribou. Backcountry Magazine had a thing about it in Jan 2016.
– There are two organizations that I am a member of that deal with this kind of access issue to public land, and how to manage people to better maintain natural resources for future generations: Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The hunting and angling community have been at this for a lot longer than backcountry skiers (and they have a lot more money 😉 ). These two organizations are examples of how to do this kind of work well (imho).
Thanks for the input on this Peter, and I’ll check out that article.
Why not interview the groups listed in this article about this question? That would be a more informative and interesting read.
Hey Paul, that’s a good suggestion and is on my list of to-dos. This was more op-ed than what are these organizations up to. One angle I am keen on looking into is how some organizations spend resources time; is it via litigation against say potential motorized use, outreach, community building, education, etc.? I hear rumblings that some groups have a myopic view and it turns towards maintaining “silence” in the winter backcountry. Which, the promotion of silence, is not such a bad thing in my eyes, but needs to be balanced with getting stakeholders in the same room (or zoom call) to discuss where they might share common goals.
Jason – I like this point. I’ve never used sled access in the backcountry and generally find the noise changes the experience of being the mountains. But I’d rather work together and share backcountry space with sledders than fight for “silence” everywhere and end up with a patchwork of restrictions that limits access.
While an interesting idea(l) I’m not sure of the real benefit. For example, where I’ve been primarily skiing the BC for 36 years in both Summit and Eagle county CO, the issues vary, sometimes dramatically when dealing with side-country access, snowmobile/BC skier conflict and animal migration issues. So other than coordinated S&R and CAIC efforts I’m not sure of the real benefit as each has solid voices driving most issues to a proper resolution.
In west-central Idaho, as the bc skiing member of the Payette NF Winter Recreation Forum, I hear the same question every year. “When will you non-motorized folks get organized to get what you want done?” At the state level, we haven’t had the lobbying and funding clout that has reaped benefits for the motorized community. Regardless of one’s opinion of sledding in the bc, one has to admire their ability to do the work to pay for trailheads, grooming, parking, etc. We non-motorized recreationalists need to do the same. But it’s not us vs them. In this region, good communication between user groups gives us a chance to avoid the worst conflicts and plan for inevitable growth. It’s an ongoing struggle.
Jason, appreciate your contributions to Wild Snow, great piece here. Do you know of Winter Wildlands Alliance? https://winterwildlands.org/
Basically carrying the flag for BC enthusiasts on the national stage for decades working with all grassroots groups listed…
Thanks for mentioning Winter Wildlands Alliance, Lew. As it happens, Jason, we’re also the national organization for and were involved in founding each of the local backcountry alliances you mention, plus a couple dozen others not mentioned. Would love to chat with you at some point about all the work we do to make sure backcountry skiers are heard in policy decisions to do with public land management, climate, conservation, etc.
Yeah man, absolutely essential to have skiers weigh in with feelings on climate change (but remember everyone, keep getting excited and buying all that super cool petroleum-based, made in Asia gear which benefits from coal-powered energy and cheap labor, especially if it makes YOU feel good).
I think Jason is calling for a unified voice that represents both human powered and motorized users. If that’s the case, then none of the “Alliance” organizations would be very effective. They’re all well known as anti-motorized, and would never be trusted by snowmobilers.
Hey Sarah, thanks for commenting. Just to be clear, what I’ve learned, and this is only my perspective, is that the dynamics involved with access (or no-access) certainly include motors, but also include wildlife protections, and in some cases expansion of ski resorts, to name a few. I don’t live in the Tetons, but I certainly learned a ton watching and reading about that process from a distance. I’m not calling for a group that speaks with a unified voice from the snowmobilers and backcountry skier/rider perspective, but I for sure would like to see where we can find common ground. Here outside Bend, along with many Forest Districts, there’s a real lack of funding. With that lack of funding goes a lack of enforcement. All winter long here, it’s clear where snowmachines have poached powder snow deep beyond the wilderness boundary. I’m talking miles beyond the boundary, and they are seeking out the best snow and most exciting terrain (just like we do, although they are supposed to human-power beyond the boundary like the rest of us). I’d love to get a conversation going to figure out that issue of voluntary non-compliance; but I’d take a firm stance and note that I agree with the non-motorized ethos in wilderness — I just think sitting down at the table with perceived adversaries can be beneficial. Anyhow, on a personal note, I’m trying to learn more about some local backcountry alliances, and what specific stances they are taking and how they go about advocating for their position.
Ok, you’re on team “us vs. them,” though your language implied otherwise. You should go back and read LD2’s comment on the previous Wildsnow article you referenced. The “he, or she who divides gets the smallest share” issue may only be starting. I have friends in the Tetons who blame the looming sheep closures on the various “Alliances.” Since they’ve been using any excuse to close more and more public land to snowmobilers, we’re now getting a taste of our own medicine. Maybe you should hold back on info about any more wolverine sightings, and think carefully about supporting the next round of snowmobile closures around Bend and elsewhere.
Such a solid point.
This is a dumb article. Live and recreate locally. Get to know your neighbors and that community will grow and evolve the way it should. Why does everyone need to travel, especially all the second and third tier athletes who think “getting the goods” in a new spot somehow is more exotic and satisfying to see on their social media feeds than exploiting all the local terrain. You’re the same kind of a-holes who gleefully bolt and climb routes then nod like idiots when someone tells you how evil Maestri was on Cerro Torre. I always get a kick out of the [usually lefty] me-myself-I crowd who loves to tell everyone else what to do while they drive, jet and skidoo wherever they damn well please because…they’re special just like their bumper sticker smeared AWD audis/Subis/tacos, new boards and tattoos say they are. Go back to your Foucault (doh!…worse than Muir for sure) and bambi-cheering if you really want to be a hypocrite and please do it locally. I love it when Coloradans make the trip up to the Winds…not hard to avoid, you can see the offensive neon stoke and hear the incessant chatty self-talk from miles away.
I’ll follow up on one of CP’s comments about the me-myself-I crowd. Use some earbuds! Us old ski pioneers have no interest in hearing your obnoxious music from the Bluetooth speaker hanging off your pack. Neither do the sheep or wolverines.