|Peace in the Backcountry
A decade into existence, a collaborative agreement between skiers
and snowmobilers in the Wood River Valley stands the test of time and inspires others.
By Jason D.B. Kauffman
Photo by Mark Oliver
For 15 years the Boulder Yurts had beckoned countless backcountry skiers into the magnificent mountains north of Ketchum. On April 2, 2000, the yurts burned to the ground. Gone were the Mongolian-style refuges from wild and bitter winter weather. In their place were two charred circles in the snow, filled with fragments of smoldering wood and unrecognizable blackened lumps.
What was recognizable were two snowmobile tracks leading to the site. Conspiracy theories linking the destruction to the tracks and the people who laid them immediately began making the rounds among backcountry skiers. Investigations by the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office determined that the fire was caused by arson. However, because no footprints were found between the snowmobile tracks and yurts, they discounted the theory that the arsonists rode in on snowmobiles.
To this day, no one has discovered who ignited the fire.
The timing of the blaze couldn’t have been worse. Since 1995, a group of local skiers and snowmobilers known as the Winter Recreation Coalition had been trying to work together to find a solution to dispel rising tensions between skiers and snowmobilers recreating in the northern half of the Wood River Valley. Bob Jonas of Sun Valley Trekking, then-owner of the yurts, told the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper that before the blaze, tensions had been a 3 or 4 out of 10. “Now it’s a 10,” he said.
Rebuilding the yurts was relatively easy. The strained motorized-vs.-non-motorized relationship was more difficult to repair.
For skiers, perhaps no other spot was more sacred or worth fighting over than the series of high, secluded bowls in the rugged Boulder Mountains above Galena Lodge. Guarded by jagged peaks, this rugged patch of high-country-powder-lover’s paradise had always been the exclusive playground of skiers, and they weren’t about to let that change.
“It’s just a very quiet, very peaceful, very wild feeling,” said Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, of skiing the area.
At least it was until snowmobilers, on increasingly powerful machines, began gaining entry to the bowls. Until then, only a gentlemen’s agreement had kept the motorized snow-seekers from punching routes into the area.
Munter, a member of the Winter Recreation Coalition, said the sight of a group of daring snowmobilers riding almost to the summit of rugged Gladiator Peak was a wake-up call for the local backcountry ski crowd.
With tensions running high, the coalition did not have an easy task. Its biggest obstacle was trust. Skiers didn’t trust or like snowmobilers, and vice-versa. Ed Cannady, the Forest Service representative during the talks, recalls that both sides were guilty of poor behavior. Snowmobilers reported being cursed at and having ski poles swung at them as they rode by. Likewise, skiers complained that snowmobilers made a point of cutting across popular powder runs loved by skiers.
Munter told the Idaho Mountain Express in April 2000 that the coalition (comprised of snowmobilers Bill DeMun, Chris Klick, Kim Nilsen, Owen Downard and Nancy Monk, and skiers Jack Haase, Andy Munter, Kathie Rivers, Jim McClatchy and John Craig) was having communication problems and that relentless bickering had prevented any real work from being accomplished. “We’re not even close,” he said, adding that the group had barely passed the handshake stage.
Adding urgency to the coalition’s task was a stark message from Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere. He had given them until October 1, 2000, to come up with a solution to segregate motorized and non-motorized zones or he would be forced to make a decision himself.
Both sides had come to the table for a variety of reasons. On one side were the snowmobilers who realized that some area closures were imminent and were worried that they would lose their favorite play spots. On the other side, skiers sought some kind of assurance that they could enjoy their time in the hills without encountering the sights or sounds of snowmobiles.
With a metaphorical fire lighted under them, the members of the coalition started to look past their differences (a group excursion to try out the other’s sport was cited as a turning point), spending the next six months hammering out area designations that would cordon off the two uses.
In mid-September, 10 months after it began working in earnest, the coalition presented a first-of-its-kind plan. It divided a 35-mile-long area, stretching from Galena Summit south past Hyndman Peak in the Pioneer Mountains, into a series of designated ski and snowmobile areas. LeVere promptly signed the agreement.
Places that had traditionally been the playground of skiers—including the upper Big Wood drainage to Galena Summit and the foothills of the Boulder Mountains from the lower North Fork of the Big Wood all the way to the Trail Creek drainage—became non-motorized-only areas. Spots that had long attracted snowmobilers looking for steep, remote and challenging terrain—the vast Baker Creek drainage in the westward Smoky Mountains and the Silver, Easley and Boulder creek areas—became designated snowmobile areas.
Today, both skiers and snowmobilers agree that the winter-use agreement, approaching its 10-year anniversary, has been remarkably successful. Simply driving by the parking lots for each sport provides a glimpse into this truth. Near Baker Creek, rows of large pickup trucks attached to snowmobile-carrying trailers pervade. Farther up toward Galena Lodge and Galena Summit, it’s mainly the all-wheel-drive Subarus and light Toyota trucks that skiers favor.
Cannady, who is responsible for placing signs each fall advising users of the restrictions as well as enforcing those rules, believes snowmobilers deserve a lot of thanks and recognition for their adherence to the agreement. “We have better compliance than any place I’m aware of in the western United States,” he said.
The agreement even spawned a conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of quiet in the wintertime backcountry: Winter Wildlands Alliance, based in Boise. Staff at the organization has expanded to support similar efforts around the West. “The Wood River Valley agreement is something we hold up as the gold standard,” said Mark Menlove, executive director of the alliance.
Only time will tell if similar winter-use planning efforts being developed in other popular winter sports areas, including Utah and Colorado, end up as successful. Not all have. Menlove points to a collaborative effort his group was involved with three years ago in Franklin Basin in northern Utah’s Logan Canyon. After the two sides agreed to a similar separation of skiers and snowmobilers, the snowmobilers changed their minds, seeking help from their congressman. The resulting political pressure produced a last-minute decision in favor of snowmobile use that reduced by half the skiers’ 9,500-acre designated quiet area. This on a forest where snowmobilers already had access to 550,000 designated acres of winter terrain.
One thing most areas outside the Wood River Valley don’t have going for them is a long and storied history of backcountry skiing. Backcountry skiers were skiing lines on Durrance and other hills north of Ketchum back in the 1930s. The long tradition meant skiers came to the table in a stronger position. That’s just not the case in most other resorts around the West, where snowmobilers often have the political upper hand because of their greater numbers.
According to Wood River Valley snowmobilers, perhaps the greatest success of the local agreement was the dissolving of the hard battle lines that had been drawn in the snow for years. Gone are the venomous back-and-forth letters to the editor in the local newspaper. “It got rid of a lot of the fighting and screaming and cursing,” said Hailey snowmobiler Owen Downard.
Although he does admit to some residual bitterness among snowmobilers—who feel they made many concessions without gaining anything similar from skiers—Downard said at the end of the day the fact that everyone can enjoy the mountains in peace is the mark of success. “We all live here, we’re all neighbors, and we should all get along,” he said.
Violations of the agreement are nearly nonexistent. Both sides have kept talking in the decade since to make sure small-scale conflicts don’t become full-blown battles. More and more, however, it’s snowmobilers and skiers policing themselves. “We’re finding we have less and less to talk about,” Munter said.
The valley’s skiers and snowmobilers, it seems, would rather let their tracks do the talking.