Thursday, July 24, 2014

Skiing Sympathies

Living in Little Cottonwood Canyon during the winter, I'm lucky to be able to enjoy backcountry skiing in both wilderness and watershed areas, zones that are free (read - prohibited) of snow-machine travel.  If you're reading this, most likely you're a skier or snowboarder, and even if you use an old beat-up sled to get deep into the mountains, once you're there you probably trade it for skins and slog your way up the mountainside to earn your face shots.  Backcountry skiing is about solitude and isolation, a dance with the wilderness.  When not used correctly, snow-machines can create a noisy, hectic, and often dangerous atmosphere.  If you value you value the solitude and serenity of a quiet mountain range dressed in white, then you should know this: on June 18th, the Forest Service issued a long-awaited rule for public comment on designating areas as open or closed to winter motorized vehicles, this is a good first step, but comments from our backcountry community can make it stronger! Your help is both needed and essential to capitalize on this opportunity to bring balance to the backcountry.  By designating specific trails and areas where over-snow vehicle use may occur, winter travel planning is an opportunity to bring balance to the backcountry.  The community of backcountry skiers needs to be heard!  Please consider adding your comment to the voices of support for human-powered winter recreation.  To get a better grasp of the issues at hand, and help you draft a comment worthy of consideration, the Winter Wildlands Alliance has put together a very helpful page to aid you in navigating this beurocratic issue.  Keep reading to see a few links that can help you along, as well as my annotated comment if you're interested.  LET'S DO THIS!!!

Check out Brennan Legasse's excellent overview of the issue at hand, as well as his sample comment here.  Couldn't have said it better myself!

Check out the Winter Wildlands Alliance how-to and form letter here.  Definitely give this page a read if you're interested in commenting (which you SHOULD BE!) but also consider's (i.e. THE MAN'S) advice for submitting an effective comment (spoiler - a well crafted comment is more effective than 1,000 form letters, TELL YOUR STORY!).

Thanks for reading, and as promised here is the comment I submitted today, a loosely assembled patchwork of my comment and the form.  

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Forest Service’s proposed rule for over-snow vehicle use.  My name is Tim Rogers, I am a professional ski patrolman with Alta Ski Lifts Company in Alta Utah, a member of the American Alpine Club, a partner of the Winter WIldlands Alliance, and the writer-editor for the web log Nature of Motion, which is a resource of inspiration and experience for human-powered recreation in the mountains.  As someone who values National Forest System lands for skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, and other human-powered recreations, I look forward to seeing snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles held to the same standards as motorized vehicles in other seasons, in other areas.  This rule is an incredible opportunity to reflect the growing interest for human-powered recreation and larger trend in awareness towards ecologically and socially responsible use of our precious natural resources.

Throughout the winter, I live and work in Alta, where you can see firsthand the very clear, and very different characteristics and impacts that exist from one area of use to another.  Alta itself sits on National Forest property, and shares boundaries with watershed, wilderness, and open use areas.  Although my work in Alta takes place on land leased from the Forest Service for private use, I most value the surrounding wilderness and watershed areas where Over Snow Vehicles (OSVs) are not allowed.  Personally, I have always been drawn to these areas for their appeal of isolation and solitude; areas free of machines and human impact are scarce resources today.  Because these reasons are subjective, and may be the same ones used in support of OSV use, I’d like to address a more practical, and objective issue: safety.

Snow is a dynamic medium.  As a ski patrolman, a large part of my responsibility is the mitigation of avalanche danger within the resort.  But in the backcountry, explosives and closed areas do not exist, and your safety is dependent upon the judgment, skill, and experience you and your partners exercise.  OSV’s can travel faster and farther than skiers, and the power and agility of modern machines has created an illusion of safety for their drivers.  This reality is reflected in the sad statistics of mortality.  Last season alone OSV’s (in this case snow-mobiles) accounted for 100% of avalanche fatalities in the mountains of Utah, while across the U.S. their use resulted in 13 out of the 32 avalanche-related fatalities, by far the highest among any winter user-group (  Sharing the backcountry with OSVs creates a confusing and dangerous environment, rarely do their users respect the considerations of skiers or other users, seldom do they communicate plans or abilities with others, and on countless occasions I have witnessed their poor judgment and reckless behavior put numerous parties of skiers in dangerous situations. 

I understand the use and appeal of OSVs and respect their place in the National Forests, so this is not to say that they have no place, but rather that their unique abilities make it hard for them to reasonably share an area with non-motorized users.  Please appreciate the reality that it is the NFS’s mission to advocate for a conservation ethic in promoting the health and diversity of pubic lands, which in todays largely industrialized world means curtailing the use of mechanized travel in our National Forests. 

By designating specific trails and areas where OSV use may occur, winter travel planning is an opportunity to bring balance to the backcountry, address different recreational preferences and minimize resource damage on NFS lands. 

In order to address this, I urge the Forest Service to incorporate the following recommendations:

·     The proposal to allow an “open unless designated closed” approach (the status quo) or a “closed unless designated open” approach (same as ORVs) is inconsistent, and confusing. The final rule should require a “closed unless designated open” approach to OSV management in order to promote seasonal and geographic consistency.

·     The draft seems to grandfather-in a range of past designations for over-snow vehicle use. Only plans that address a whole Forest or Ranger District, minimize user conflict and resource damage, and had meaningful public involvement should be carried forward. 

·     The proposed definition of an “area” would allow designated OSV areas nearly as large as a Ranger District, with impacts of trails in that area exempt from analysis.  The rule should make areas smaller, with clear geographical boundaries, and require trails analysis.

Overall, the draft is a step in the right direction, but it does little to improve conditions for human -powered winter recreation.  

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment on this important issue, and I hope you consider the great opportunity for fostering future generations of responsible use.


Tim Rogers
Alta, Utah

Now get to work and SUBMIT YOUR COMMENT!

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