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The Vail Pass Experiment -- Weird Science

Fee Demo $$$, overblown environmental concerns, and tribalisim. Is this the way to get more access?


By Lou Dawson

Do you enjoy being told where you can and cannot ski or snowboard? Do you like restricted trailheads? Click into your bindings and then bend over and grab your ankles, because plenty of people would like to keep you out of the mountains. All over the United States our access to public land is being degraded by onerous regulations, fees, and overblown environmental concerns. [I used to think more fees might be good, but since have changed my mind about that, especially after the kind of taxes we're paying these days...]

My favorite example is Vail Pass, a high elevation trailhead on Interstate Highway 70 in the Gore Range of central Colorado. Because most Colorado roads are closed in winter, access points such as Vail Pass are like food in a famine. Via snowmobile, snowshoes, skis, or splitboard, thousands of people show up on weekends to gain sustenance.

As winter sports grew in popularity over the past decade, a number of backcountry skiers who used Vail Pass decided they didn't want to share the trails with snowmobiles. They formed an organization called the Backcountry Skiers' Alliance (BSA) whose purpose was to segregate use in the area. Since then, BSA has expanded and now (quite commendably) addresses many issues pertaining to backcountry skiing in Colorado, but its focus is still on restricting mechanized use of nonwilderness lands. To that end, the Forest Service worked with BSA and representatives of other users to establish a group known as the Vail Pass Task Force. In other words, bureaucracy was to solve the problem of Vail Pass crowding.

But the concept of a crowded Colorado backcountry is an illusion, and creating bureaucracy is a "solution" to a problem that does not exist. Suffer through the math.

A winter in Colorado will see about twelve million user-days of skiing/riding at the resorts. Couloir Magazine's demographic studies have shown that no more than five percent of skiers/riders go backcountry. Moreover, backcountry folk still spend more days at resorts more than they do in the backcountry, by at least a factor of two. So for the sake of discussion let's say a typical winter in Colorado sees 300,000 user days of backcountry skiing/riding. That's a high estimate.

The backcountry season is about 180 days long, so a skier who wants peace and travels during low-use periods would never be sharing the entire Colorado backcountry with more than 1,667 others. Sound crowded? Perhaps it seems so at times, but not because of the numbers.

We have roughly about 1,000 square miles of legal wilderness in Colorado and at least triple that amount of prime backcountry (a conservative estimate), for a total of 4,000 square miles of winter playgrounds. Thus, each of those skiers potentially has at least two square miles per user day. Furthermore, skiers travel in groups, so we'll assume four groups of three happen to head for the same area. Now this huge crowd of twelve is "fighting" over 24 square miles -- and they're leaving uncrowded acreage for others. What's more, you could ski the same 24 square mile area of mountains for a whole season and be happy. It's huge. Multiply for heavy-use periods such as weekends and we still have potential for plenty of room (with the added benefit of more peace if you're able to go during low-use times).

Bean counting aside, my experience in the field has shown the above is true. Indeed, the numbers of users and user days listed above must be astronomically high. In reality, during almost all my hundreds of Colorado backcountry ski days, I see no other users other than those in my group. Zilch. Nada. (But I don't follow the rear-end of every other user to the most popular trailheads.)

So, crowding would not be an issue if use were distributed. Ditto for snowmobiles. First, they can't use legal wilderness. Second, they're restricted from other land as well. Third, an enormous amount of public land in Colorado is suitable for snowmobiling but too flat for backcountry skiing.

The above should make it obvious: we have plenty of room if we can access the land. Crowding is an artificial state created by access problems, and lack of information about new places to go. Sadly, I've heard not a word from the Forest Service, Backcountry Skier's Alliance, or anyone else about opening a few more access opportunities on Vail Pass or anywhere else. Instead, the solution to the problem, as promoted by BSA and implemented by the Vail Task Force, has been to create a "management area." Trails for various user groups were defined within the management area, and a user fee was charged. It didn't work. Skiers still sniffed sled fumes; crowds bloomed; the user fee was at best a nuisance and at worst discriminatory taxation without representation. Indeed, these "fee-demo" user fees have become as unpopular as the Colonial taxes that caused tea to be brewed in Boston harbor.

It gets sadder. Proving my point about vast reaches without crowds, on the north side of the highway at Vail Pass is a huge area of prime wilderness. Starting from the side of the highway, you can play in more than three square miles of low-angled terrain. Higher up, the Gore Range yields at least six beautiful mountains within a day's journey. Beyond, 150 square miles of the Eagles Nest Wilderness could easily hold 10 times the skiers and riders a holiday weekend could throw its way. What's more, the small strip of nonwilderness land next to the highway is not popular with snowmobilers. Indeed, the whole area is de facto nonmotorized. But try to use it.

First, find a parking spot at Vail Pass (if you can), then pay a user fee for nothing. Next, you're forced to walk the chloride-slimed road shoulder back northerly across an overpass, then down a stretch of service road. Adding insult, there is a perfect trailhead at a trucker's parking area near the goods, but parking there is illegal unless you have a commercial vehicle permit. Adding even more insult, I've seen snowshoe and ski outfitters parked at this trailhead, presumably because they are "commercial." Why is this not a trailhead we all can use? Why not have several trailheads spaced along the road to dilute use? Indeed, why not build more trailheads all over Colorado, thus spreading out the numbers? This would virtually solve our crowding problems and user conflicts.

I've never heard a snowmobiler complain about crowding. That's by design. The snowmobile crowd worked their behinds off to create a phenomenal network of trails and access points around the state. They promote those trails, and the routes get used. In the meantime, we backcountry skiers have whined about snowmobiles and taken the moral high ground, but we've done little if anything to develop our own access opportunities. We even exalt over keeping areas "secret," as if we owned them, thus forcing less worthy brethren to flog the sacrifice zones. A BSA person even told me they had difficulty figuring out how to distribute the organization's management maps, since they feared attracting more users to the limited area shown on the map. This is otherwise known as a "no win" situation. Instead, how about making a bigger map, and give one to everyone in the state? I repeat, if we spread use by accessing the vast Colorado backcountry, snowmobiles would not be a problem, and neither would crowding. We'd be happy to distribute maps, publish guidebooks, plow roads, and build trailheads.

With such an easy solution, why do groups like BSA still act as if bureaucracy, user fees, and crowded sacrifice areas are the answer? Why do they agonize over something as basic as distributing maps? After conversations with several BSA people, I found the answer. As in most such organizations, you'll find an undercurrent of environmentalism-the sense that human beings are inherently bad and are destroying the world. Along with this goes the theory of a terminally crowded backcountry -- or a terminally crowded future. To these people, building more trailheads and creating access points is immoral. They won't do it. They'd rather concentrate all us odious humans in one small backcountry Calcutta and keep us from messing with the rest.

What's more, as a bureaucracy forms it develops a life of its own it starts regarding people as the enemy: a problem to be done away with or at least shoved aside with nothing more than a perfunctory response to their needs.. Combine this verity with antihuman environmental sentiments, and the result is obvious: the last thing to be served will be backcountry skiers' needs.

Where do you stand? If you believe more access to the winter backcountry will ruin it, then be true to your ethics. Enjoy paying your user fee and sharing Vail Pass with myriad other snowmobilers and skiers. On the other hand, if you believe we can spread out the use intelligently, thus creating an elegant solution to the problem, beware of those who claim to be acting on your behalf; they might prefer that you stay home and channel surf -- or pay a fee to join the crowds.

(published in Couloir Magazine,December, 1998)
 

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