Backcountry Skiers and Boarders Must Address Land Access

Post by blogger | November 16, 1993      

I got a call from Martina Navratolova’s attorney. “Martina bought property up Castle Creek, and we understand it covers access to the ski route up Hayden Peak” she said.” Can you tell us where the trail goes?”

Later, with the trail flagged and the easement in writing, I thought we had a done deal for this access issue near Aspen, Colorado. Wrong. The plan was to place obvious signs, but when the county commissioners had to approve the signs, one official whined: “Signs are just going to attract the wrong people up there.” So much for our easement. Without signs no one could find it, and skiers trespassed all over Martina’s land for the next few years. This winter the problem came to a head. Luckily, our county officials are now more mature, and the easement has finally be marked. Another small battle won in a tough war.

Access. We backcountry skiers need it, but we don’t always get it.

In rural mountain areas, mountaineers use many access routes that pass through private land. You may be using such a route now and not even know it. Local land owners, steeped in local tradition and respectful of backcountry activities such as skiing, hunting, and hiking, have been casual about people treading their land. Indeed, several of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks are on private land, and access has never been a problem.

Now, people with big-city attitudes are buying up the West like dogs on raw meat. So I’m certain that we’ll see more situations like that of Martina’s land, and they won’t always have a happy ending.

Private property blockage isn’t our only ski touring access issue. Consider safety. In California’s Eastern Sierra a gang of thieves hit remote trailheads. They had a picnic preying on cars they were certain would be there for several days. When caught, they had an entire garage of stolen goods. At 10th Mountain Hut trailheads near Leadville Colorado, cars are regularly vandalized. If you camp near trailheads, even your personal safety is at risk. I was camped in Utah, and awoke to the chatter of nearby automatic weapons. I didn’t ask what they were shooting at. Could have been our tents, luckily they were drunk.

What’s being done about trailhead safety? Not much. It’s as if backcountry skiers are ignored. In a place like Leadville, Colorado with three 10th Mountain Huts contributing to the local economy, you’d think the local posse would be more aggressive with preventing trailhead crime. After all, a bit of surveillance would probably solve the problem. They stepped up their patrols, but the problem remains. Elsewhere, the story is much the same.

Ever tried to park at a crowded trailhead? From Oregon to Main, weekend parking at popular trailheads is a war. Often, with budget and time limits, trailheads are the last thing the snowplows hit. In Southern California, the state set up the Snow-Park program to create parking for snow-season recreators, including a large percentage of backcountry skiers. The program worked, but funding was a problem, and now the Snow-Park program will probably be directed by the state off-highway-vehicle (OHV) Department. Will the trailheads still be maintained for skiers? Perhaps yes if skiers work with the OHV people. But it’s entirely possible that the interests of backcountry skiers will disappear under OHV tires and snowmobile tracks.

What about roads in general? While we off-piste skiers are a mobile force, we don’t always have the time or energy for long approach marches. Indeed, my motto is “drive to the snow,” and from the looks of trailheads in Colorado these days, I’m not the only one repeating that mantra. Face it. It’s more fun to ski from your bumper than hike a rocky trail in the dark, wondering when you’ll finally get those branch whackers off your back and clipped to your feet.

Yet all too often, roads remain gated well into the spring ski season — even when they’re dry and driveable. Worse yet, in an elitist effort to reduce human impact, many trailheads have been moved farther from backcountry areas by closing perfectly good access roads.

Funding is part of the problem with road access. In most states, OHV owners fund trailhead maintenance with fuel taxes and registration fees. Skiers also need a fair and efficient funding method. Ideas run the gamut from taxes on gear to permits like a fishing license (“Boy, you got yer powder license for them tracks?”). The solutions won’t come easy. Several counties in southern Colorado, sensing tourist dollars, make a phenomenal effort to open their backcountry roads in the spring. But such efforts can fizzle unless the actual users, us, get involved both financially and as a lobby force.

Yes, we backcountry skiers need a voice. Various organizations try to speak for us: Nordic Voice in California, Backcountry Skier’s Alliance in Colorado, to name a few. While these groups do address access issues, their focus is mostly on off-road-vehicle issues, is always regional, and they tend to be “anti” groups who define themselves by what they’re against instead of what they’re for. We need is a national organization for backcountry skiers — one that makes access a priority — with a positive and inclusive approach.

(A version of this article was published in Couloir Magazine, Oct/Nov 1993)


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