USFS to Utah Skiers: Hike For Your Turns

Post by blogger | July 15, 2010      

A big part of the shrieking monkey house you might experience on a Saturday morning in the Utah Wasatch is caused by industrial tourism, meaning lift skiing and helicopter skiing.

Having experienced the Wasatch zoo, it has been interesting to watch the constant battle between preservationists and developers. The preservationists sometimes come off as extremists, but perhaps a bit of extremism is to be expected when the monkeys get crowded.

Now, to be true to my ideals I have to say that the jobs and economic boost created by industrial tourism might actually be part of the reason people can work in the Salt Lake City area and lead the backcountry skiing lifestyle. But balance is key and the creeping expansion of lift skiing is something my ideals also cause me to red-light.

In the case of Solitude resort’s expansion into Silver Fork in the Wasatch, I just never saw it as something essential to the resort’s well being. It seemed more like the PR driven “me too” stuff that’s going on with resorts as they try to open more and more sidecountry terrain so their customers can actually ski some of the stuff they see in the brochure photos. Thus, it was somewhat gratifying to get back from our Denali expedition and see that the USFS is recognizing backcountry recreation and denied the Solitude expansion.

The Solitude denial is part of a an interesting trend (or a possible trend, if you’re a pessimist). Public land managers are recognizing the viable existence of adventure sports and activities that don’t require focused development such as resorts.

But, and it is a big but, we need to keep in mind that the USFS by their very nature tends to approve what produces income for them in the form of use and extraction fees. Backcountry users such as backcountry skiers and snowmobilers don’t commonly pay a use fee. Thus, if ski resorts are on a holding pattern of expansion in terrain and use numbers, is Big Brother going to come up with various schemes to extract money from those of us recreating in the outback on our own public land?

Extraction from our wallets is already happening, of course, for example in the form of the heinous Fee Demo program that was shoved down our throats by Congress in 1996, and continues to haunt us. Should we expect more of the same?

Your comments?


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9 Responses to “USFS to Utah Skiers: Hike For Your Turns”

  1. Fernando Pereira July 16th, 2010 3:31 pm

    We have SnoPark fees in CA, and when I went to climb and ski the South Sister in Oregon on July 5th, I had to get a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the Devil’s Lake trailhead. I pay these gladly, my only complaint was how hard it was for me find a place to buy the NW Pass coming into OR on the holiday weekend. Ideally, we’d have a convenient all-West trailhead parking permit to help support maintenance, wilderness protection, and S&R. Seems a fair deal to me.

  2. David July 16th, 2010 8:08 pm

    The SnoParks in the Tahoe area are very poorly and unreliably plowed. The existence of bad SnoParks also allows the land managers (mostly FS) to consider their work complete in terms of offering access to the BC. I would prefer not to be taxed twice, but the second time wouldn’t bug me so much if they actually did what they were supposed to with the money they received.

    There are two FS roads here that access incredible terrain. The roads are plowed all winter long, but gated so that only the rich folk who have cabins can have access (well only they can have legal access).

    I try not to be a pessimist, but I haven’t observed that trend here in Tahoe.

  3. Jwolter7 July 19th, 2010 11:53 am

    “The SnoParks in the Tahoe area are very poorly and unreliably plowed”.

    Do they actually receive their money or is that just theory in CA?

    Maybe that will change this November once weed is legalized in CA and your state gets some real money to work with again.

  4. Mike M July 19th, 2010 1:40 pm

    The Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are a very unique area and need to be managed so as to allow for more than just resort skiing. I was glad to hear the the Forest Service denied Solitude’s request for additional terrain. This decision seems to be a reversal of prior trends with the USFS but I do not know if it will stay that way.

    The next big issue the USFS faces in the Cottonwood Canyons will be Alta’s proposed lift on the North side of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Apparently Alta owns the land they want to expand on but by doing so it will have a huge impact on backcountry users and the adjacent forest service lands..

    Stay tuned for more! Thanks for the great info Lou!

  5. josh July 19th, 2010 4:13 pm

    Same issues are happening here in Bozeman at Bridger Bowl. The addition of the Slaschmans lift was a huge loss for the backcountry skiers in the area. Not only was terrain gobbled up, but one of the only safe uphill routes to gain the Bridger Crest was consumbed by the resort. Now the only area with reasonable access in the Bridger Range is that to the north of the resort. Now this too is slated to have a chair lift added in the coming years. The forest service approved this expansion years ago. Is there anything that can be done to stop the resort from expanding and consuming more backcountry terrain?

  6. Mark July 23rd, 2010 7:36 am

    I have worked in land management for about 15 years, first in a USFS Wilderness program, and for some time for the NPS, initially as a ranger type but for a number of years in project management and environmental analysis. First, I’ll offer my opinion that collecting special use permit fees is overrated as a motive for land managers. My own experience is that special uses permit fees (in contrast to recreation fees and franchise fees) do not flow back to the park (maybe covers a salary for direct administration but not projects – someone in the USFS might have a different experience) but end up in the general fund. Far more important is the well-organized and politically connected public support for developments like ski areas, and the potential to contribute to local economies; these are legitimate motives when the project is compatible with the unit’s resource management goals and other public uses. Without knowing a lot about the Wasatch, it sounds like backcountry users have gotten organized and have been able to articulate the value of the Solitude expansion area to their user group.

    Now to recreation fees (“fee demo” – but not a demo for the NPS anymore at all!), misunderstood and unfairly maligned. I’ll say first that I have never been involved in managing any USFS recreation fees, but I have advanced projects funded by NPS recreation fees. In the old days you arrived at your park, paid your fee at the entrance, and your money then made its way to the general fund where it was reallocated to whatever purpose Congress identified. Under the Rec Fee program most (80% or 60%) is put in a fund to be used for projects in the park, with the stipulation that the projects have a relationship to visitor use. I’ve seen restorations, visitor centers, roads, trails, and entrance station upgrades funded by Rec Fees. The rest of the money (20% or 40%) is distributed to little parks in the region that can’t or don’t collect fees – historic sites or small less visited parks that still have facilities that need to maintenance or upgrades. I think that is a good program for parks and taxpayers.

    Now on the USFS there was not a tradition of paying for recreation facilities because trailheads and trails, signs, roads, etc were maintained with money generated by logging, mining, etc. But for a lot of forests (Northwest Forest Pass areas for example) those revenue sources have dried up with the decline of those extractive uses. Now you have higher demand for access, which requires more and better infrastructure, and less money to maintain the facilities. You can let them crumble, lobby Congress without hope for a bigger base, or…shift a portion of the burden to the users of those facilities.

    To me the latter makes great sense, and the fact that recreationists got free access in the past has no bearing on the management approach that will work in the future, when recreation becomes a central management goal and challenge to muli-use agencies rather than a sideline to extractive uses (maybe excepting the units with big oil and gas operations). On top of that, the fees I paid for the NW Forest Pass were trivial compared to the cost of my sport or my trips.

    Whether or not good or bad projects have been funded by USFS rec fees, or the overhead is too high, or enforcement unfair – separate and important questions, but I’d like to see local recreationists accept the “pay to play” principle and get involved with the way those moneys are used so that good projects happen and enforcement becomes less burdensome.

    Thanks for the space. I am sure many folks have direct experience that contradicts some of what I have said, and I’m happy to hear it.

  7. Lou July 23rd, 2010 7:50 am

    Good comment Mark, thanks.

    For starters, I’d say the first thing the USFS should do to save money is stop doing improvements in legal Wilderness. They should stop installing signs, stop building bridges, just STOP. What they’re doing in the Wilderness is just ridiculous and it amazes me that more Wilderness advocates don’t rail against it.

    Beyond that, my take is that the issue of fees to direct users is as much philosophical as anything.

    If one is of the environmentalist view that “having the land out there even if I never go still makes me feel good, and it’s good for everyone on the planet.” Then perhaps all expenses for that land should be shared through taxation of the general population (if they can’t be taken care of by funds from logging and such.)

    On the other hand, I’d agree that it makes a sort of harsh sense that the person who uses something should pay directly for costs associated with that use. Toll roads come to mind as the best example of this.

    On the other hand, gasoline taxes and other taxes pay for most roads. If you’re a bicyclist and drive an electric car, perhaps you should be paying a fee to use the roads, if we’re going to pay a fee to use public land, then paying tolls for all roads is the logical extension of that POV, isn’t it?

    Good discussion, this issue needs to be constantly brought to the fore.

  8. Lou July 23rd, 2010 8:00 am

    Josh, one thing to look at with resort expansion issues is to examine the bigger picture. There is usually plenty of terrain out there, but folks end up needing the resort to access it because so few roads go anywhere useful in the winter.

    The view I’ve had for a long time is somewhere somehow an organization of concerned backcountry skiers should push for a few more access roads and trailhead parking areas. Even one more occasionally plowed road that punches into the goods could totally change the picture in many areas.

    As always, gov will say “no money for that.” But I watch entities such as the USFS grading jeep trails around here nearly every summer. That means it’s just a matter of fund allocation. Perhaps pay for less improvements on the jeep trail, and figure out one road that could be plowed a few miles to a nice parking area closer to the goods… Also, a backcountry skier club could perhaps fund some road plowing if there was enough interest, and some members could even do the lighter plowing with their own trucks.

    Just thinking outloud…

  9. Mark July 23rd, 2010 8:31 am

    I’d say that the gs tax for highway maintenance is an excellent example of taxing users and one most folks accept as reasonable. Why not tax bikes? One, they don’t cause road damage, and two, there are other social benefits of bicycle use that should be encouraged. So paying for bikes lanes/trails in urban areas with gas tax makes sense to me because it can reduce traffic, pollution, and road maintenance demands – in other words reduces the social cost of automobile use. The message is that fees should be tied to costs for services, not levied indiscriminately against users.

    Regarding public lands, I believe strongly that there are many existential benefits that accrue to everyone, including non-users, such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, viewsheds, etc. Therefore general funding should be (and is now) the backbone of land management funding. But when it comes to specific facilities and their cost for maintenance, it seems very reasonable to me to tap direct users to bear a portion of that cost.

    I think you’re right that unnecessary upgrades do occur in Wilderness and in other environements on public lands. There are real issues with agencies becoming captive to special interests and pursuing high cost, low benefit programs. Let me dangerously suggest that the fish-stocking programs of many state game agencies fall inot this category. The jeep road example is an interesting one. I recently moved to Colorado and don’t really know the jeep thing, but in the bankrupt western state I moved from, I can think of two reasons why those roads should be maintained at taxpayer expense (though a use fee could still be a reasonable ingredient). First, jeep roads are also known as fire roads, and provide critical access for wildland firefighters. Second, bad roads are bad environmentally: they contribute to erosion and hurt water quality. Problem is that the Forests built too many roads back when to support logging, to “suppress all fire”, and now must maintain them or bear the high cost of restoration.

    Thanks again for the space to talk land management.

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