The Utah backcountry gets crowded

And a chance for change in the Wasatch comes and goes

  • A Wasatch Powderbird Guides helicopter flies over a backcountry skier

    Andrew McLean,
  • Wasatch Mountains

    Diane Sylvain

The Tri-Canyon area, formed by Mill Creek Canyon and Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, is the center of backcountry skiing in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. But Alexis Kelner, co-author of the backcountry ski guide Wasatch Tours, thinks it’s gone to pot. As the understated Kelner puts it, the Tri-Canyon area, a 30-minute drive from Salt Lake City, is no longer a "pleasant" place to ski.

Kelner began skiing in the Wasatch in 1957, back when he says it felt like only 20 people hiked into the canyons to find untracked powder snow. Those days are long gone. From 1950 to 2000, the population of Salt Lake City almost quadrupled, to 1.6 million people. In 2003, the Wasatch-Cache National Forest was the fifth most heavily used national forest in the country. Most of the winter use is concentrated in the Tri-Canyon area, with its world-class snow, easily accessible backcountry, and four ski resorts: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude.

But the same qualities that make the area popular with backcountry skiers make it essential to the heli-skiing company Wasatch Powderbird Guides, which charges each of its clients $770 a day for helicopter lifts to the top of the slopes. The company’s use of avalanche-control explosives, the drone of its rotors, and the fields of tracked-up snow left behind cause wildlife enthusiasts, and many backcountry skiers, to complain that the backcountry is being sacrificed to commercial recreation.

Heli-skiers make up only 2 percent of total backcountry users, but they have a much larger impact than anyone else, according to the environmental group Save Our Canyons. The group has led a decades-long fight to preserve the silence and untracked powder in the central Wasatch. The conflict has forced the Forest Service to get creative with dividing up access to the backcountry.

In its 31 years of operation, Wasatch Powderbird Guides has been slowly hemmed in. The 1984 Utah Wilderness Act put large chunks of the lower Tri-Canyon off-limits. In 1999, the Forest Service created a half-mile no-fly zone around occupied golden eagle nests, and closed the Tri-Canyon area to heli-skiing on Sundays and Mondays.

But some skiers and environmentalists say these restrictions have only increased conflict. According to a Forest Service study, the Sunday-Monday closure caused an 18 percent increase in Powderbird’s Saturday use of the Tri-Canyon area. "This is Utah," says Rusty Dassing, who has worked as a Powderbird guide for 20 years. "People are more likely to recreate on Saturdays."

So when the company’s five-year permit came up for renewal last November, Powderbird asked the Forest Service to replace the fixed closure with an annual cap of 10 to 15 weekend days. This would reduce backcountry conflict, according to the company, because it would remove Powderbird’s incentive to use the Tri-Canyon area every Saturday. Instead, weekend use would be spread out over the season.

The Forest Service initially considered adopting Powderbird’s suggestions, but many locals, who liked having predictable heli-free days, objected. In the new five-year permit, the Forest Service decided to retain many of the old conditions, including the Sunday-Monday closure. In an attempt to reduce Saturday congestion, however, the new permit allows Powderbird to exchange three Saturdays for three Mondays each season. Lisa Smith, executive director of Save Our Canyons, says the permit "isn’t as bad as it could have been." But she says her group is going to challenge the permit with an administrative appeal, on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough to protect golden eagles.

Dassing, meanwhile, says the 10- to 15-day cap "would have significantly reduced our impact on others. It would have given us the flexibility to avoid other people."

If the Forest Service’s decision is upheld, it will be another five years before the issue can be revisited.

Loren Kroenke, district ranger for the Salt Lake Ranger District, calls the conflict "symptomatic of what’s going on across the West, although a little more compressed." The Census Bureau predicts the population of the Salt Lake region to balloon from 1.6 to 2.7 million by the year 2020.

Meanwhile, longtime backcountry skier Kelner says he’s given up on the Tri-Canyon area. Now, he skis in the southern Wasatch, or farther east, in the Uinta Mountains. And Wasatch Powderbird Guides has expanded overseas, offering heli-skiing in places like Greenland and New Zealand.

Lissa James is a former HCN intern. HCN Editor Greg Hanscom’s father, Dave Hanscom, co-authored Wasatch Tours with Alexis Kelner.


Save Our Canyons, 801-363-7283

Wasatch Powderbird Guides, 801-742-2800