Friday, February 10, 2012

A Conflict of Interest

There is no way around the fact that the backcountry is a place of growing interest for winter recreation enthusiasts. From skiers and snowboarders to snowmobilers and heli-skiers it seems everyone has their own idea of a good time. It has become easy, however, for user groups to step on the toes of others resulting in some, often heated, discussions of who is right and wrong and why. The Wasatch Range is no exception to this.

So why are issues of use a seemingly recent problem? The answer lays mostly in the great increases in technology of the gear which makes it all possible. Snowmobiles are lighter and faster, ski touring gear is more functional, ski areas have expanded and helicopters are still there to fly around and drop off skiers. Before ski areas started to operate, few people skied. When heli skiing started few people hiked for their turns and today almost anyone can access remote terrain on a snowmobile. Today, thousands hike for their turns and ski areas, heli skiers and snowmobilers take the brunt of the heat for getting in the way. So who is right and who is wrong? There must be a middle ground somewhere.

In my opinion untracked snow on public land is a commodity and each user group is entitled a portion of it proportional to the size of the user group. Snowmobiles consume snow rapidly so they deserve less time to operate or access to areas that are limited in size. Heli skiers should follow a similar protocol. Ski tourers shouldn’t be punished because of the fact they consume snow more slowly. Most Utah public land areas outside of Mill Creek and the Cottonwood Canyons are a virtual free-for-all for snowmobilers, altering other user group’s experience and having a disruptive toll of some maximal level on the wildlife.

In the Cottonwood Canyons around Salt Lake City snowmobiling and dogs are prohibited on public lands due to these areas being within the city water-shed. Ski areas are permitted to operate in these areas however, as well as helicopters, thousands of motor vehicles and of course people are allowed to be there. Some regulations are likely for the best as these areas have really become busy with people, but the question still remains where we should draw the line and what is prohibited for watershed reasons and what is, in all reality, prohibited for preserving the user experience.

On private lands, land owners should ideally be able to do what they want and use snow as they please. A problem arises though when private and public lands are close to one another, where boundaries are vague and where access to private areas may involve the use of public ones, as is the case in Cardiff Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon. In Cardiff, as in many areas of the Mountain-West, public lands surround private stakes, many due to the fact that they were originally used for mining purposes. Cardiff, being the virtual epicenter for ski touring in Utah, has been the site of years of heated debate over motorized use in an otherwise hiking only area… besides heli skiing. Sound confusing? That’s because it is confusing! Add a land owner or two who likes snowmobiling as a form of recreation, thousands of the ski touring public crossing their private land, and groups of heli skiers lapping around over-head and you have a complete fuck-scene!

What are your thoughts?

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