Sometime in September of last year, the Waterhole Ski Hut was extirpated from Olympic National Park with no public notification or public process. More here.
It often appears our own governments are waging a schizophrenic war on recreation such as backcountry skiing. Drive your gigantic motorhome in our national parks, pumping pollution along the way like a gas laced coal mine — wonderful. Build and use a minimalist ski hut? NO! It must be removed!
Here in Colorado, due to a number of factors it is difficult to build backcountry recreation (ski, hiking, mountain biking, mountaineering) huts on public land. Nearby land owners complain (OMG, parking! people!), wildlife biologists find lynx tracks, and so on.
(Credit for actually getting a hut done here in Colorado goes to Alfred Braun huts for their new Opa’s Hut.)
Beyond the road blocks mentioned above, in my view the biggest (and possibly least admitted to) problem with hut building is you can’t put them in legal Wildernesss where literally thousands of excellent hut sites would otherwise exist.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love our existing legal Wilderness. But I happen to feel we have enough “big-W” here in Colorado. The limiting of recreation opportunities such as huts is the main reason I’m opposed to any new Wilderness in our state, and instead feel our non-Wilderness public backcountry land can be managed for conservation and recreation with a variety of other legislative tools. Once those tools are exhausted, then it’s time to pull out the big W gun in the name of conservation. But only then.
Nonetheless, for many people the concept of creating more legal Wilderness is understandably attractive (it just seems, so, “right”). Thus, every few years here in Colorado we get another politician working with heavily funded environmental groups to designate more land as legal Wilderness.
One recent Colorado Wilderness proposal is senator Mark Udall’s “Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act” (birthed from the controversial “Hidden Gems Wilderness” proposal that’s been sucking energy and money in our area for what seems like a hundred years.) Article about Udall’s legislation. Another more recent and serious attempt at Wilderness designation in Colorado is Udall’s San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act (defunct link removed 2015).
When I’ve recently spoken with other recreation advocates who feel more Wilderness is inappropriate, a common thread is “when will these Wilderness proposals stop, so we can quit fighting and work with other folks to improve conservation oriented recreation management — or even help take better care of our existing and wonderful legal Wilderness?” Sadly, instead, we’re stuck in the trenches trying to intercept political footballs such as Udall’s proposals. It’s like a horror movie in which we’re condemned to a hellish cycle of flashing from one alternate universe to the next — with each one nearly the same as the last. I lost count a long time ago of how many public meetings I’ve been to regarding new Wilderness proposals. Make it stop!
Senator Mark Udall is a climber and backcountry skier who was with Colorado Outward Bound for 20 years, and also served on the board of 10th Mountain Huts (I met with Mark recently in a focus group scenario, and also know him personally from early days at Outward Bound). While I like Mark and have immense respect for him, what’s disappointing is while the man is is incredibly smart and well spoken, he doesn’t appear to acknowledge how important the use of NON-Wilderness backcountry is to the recreation industry in Colorado (due to road access, huts, mountain biking, ATV use and a long list of those sorts of things, detailed below).
(To be fair, Udall did author and accomplish the passage of his “Ski Area Recreational…Enhancement Act” which helps resorts add off-season recreation to their roster. But that’s just ski resorts — they’re fun but really only a part of the entire mountain recreation picture I’m discussing here. Also, it should be noted that Udall is also proposing the use of Special Management Areas (SMAs) which can be used for conservation purposes without the broad and difficult to fine-tune restrictions of legal Wilderness. If Udall’s proposal was all SMA based that would be a different story — it’s the big-W part that’s the problem.)
In public meetings Mark hooks on a sophomoric talking point about how making more legal Wilderness will be this amazing economic engine for our state. I’ll say it: that is total B.S. — I’ve studied on this issue for hours (if not years) and can’t see how Mark’s Wilderness proposals could ever add one red cent to our state economy (other than the money environmental groups spend on promoting and legislating them.)
Instead, Mark, couldn’t you just shelve this resource sucking Wilderness fight and work on some sort of legislation to help with things that matter to our overall outdoor recreation picture (the real “economic engine” of outdoor recreation) and require NON Wilderness land management? Here is a list:
– Trailhead parking improvements.
– More trailheads.
– Smoothing way for public backcountry hut building through funding and favorable legislation.
– Road improvements and additions to distribute access instead of concentrating it. Important road improvements include additional turn-outs on single-lane highcountry roads, while keeping the rough 4×4 character of many such roads.
– Acknowledgement and support of the fact that our Colorado highcountry 4×4 vehicular trails are a heritage resource rather than a nuisance.
– Control and accommodation of ATVs (easily the biggest and fastest growing segment of spendy economically beneficial outdoor recreation, no Wilderness required.)
– Oversight of ski resorts expanding to backcountry terrain.
– Management and preservation of existing Wilderness including better boundary signs, law enforcement, and removal of all permanent human improvements such as signs and bridges.
– Enforcement of the law in regards to motorized trespass in legal Wilderness.
– Snow plowing and summer maintenance of backcountry access roads.
– Oversight and opening of gated roads that could provide better recreation access.
– Incentives for private land owners to provide access routes for landlocked public lands they hold sway over.
– Research and education regarding the relationship of conservation to a recreation and tourism economy, and how the two can coexist.
– Open and legal use of numerous additional backcountry mountain bike trails.
– Vastly improved trail clearing and maintenance, using efficient mechanized means illegal in big-W Wilderness.
– Encouragement and management of developed rock climbing areas with numerous drilled bolt anchors.
– Development of via ferrata fixed cable rock and alpine climbs (illegal in Wilderness).
– Due to global warming, ski resorts will need more high altitude terrain. Colorado has that land, but much of such terrain is locked up in “rock pile Wilderness.” Making more such Wilderness could be terrible for a ski industry that’s most certainly going to need such terrain to stay in business.
– And lastly but perhaps most importantly, our forests in Colorado are rapidly deteriorating due to improper management that’s resulting in overly dense timber stands that poorly resist insect damage. In many cases, turning that trend around will require access to the forest by mechanized means. Legal Wilderness shuts that down. Permanently. We need legislation that encourages proper management of our forests — instead of blocking it.
In other words, to Senator Udall, above is an outline for your new “Alpine Recreation Enhancement Act.” How about moving beyond your fiddling around with Wilderness debates and getting on it! You’d have my vote.
I can probably think of a few more things for the list that are important and only possible in NON Wilderness, but should turn it over to you WildSnowers! Rant on!
What do you like to do in the backcountry that’s illegal in big-W Wilderness? Sleep in a hut? Clip a bolt on a rock climb? What would you advocate for that Senator Udall could do that would help conserve our public lands and at the same time truly help our recreation economy? Or should we just forget about recreation as an economic engine, and depend on ranching, natural gas drilling, and second home construction to support ourselves?
Learn more about timber management in the age of pine beetles and global warming.
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.