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Flashpoint in the Northern Rockies

Burned huts symbolize tension between skiers and snowmobiles


SUN VALLEY, Idaho - Late on an uncommonly warm Sunday afternoon, arsonists torched two backcountry huts nestled at the base of the Boulder Mountains, about 12 miles north of here.

By the next morning, little was left of the cozy, heated wood-frame-wall tents (called yurts) except the remains of two wood stoves and propane tanks, tipped over in a bed of ashes.

Fire investigators determined that the two huts, which stood side by side, had been leveled by arsonists on April 2.

Bob Jonas, owner of Sun Valley Trekking, who built the Boulder huts for families about 10 years ago, suspects that the arsonists were snowmobilers. The destruction cost him $20,000, with no insurance to cover losses.

"I feel I may be a target," Jonas says. "But I'm appalled that this has happened. There's never been a fire at any of the huts in this area, going back to the early 1970s."

Here, at the tail end of the 1999-2000 winter recreation season, the hut fire represents a new flashpoint in the upper Wood River Valley between backcountry skiers and snowmobilers who live for fresh powder.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said preliminary information does not indicate that a snowmobiler ignited the fire. The Idaho State Snowmobile Association contributed $1,000 toward a $4,000 reward fund to find the culprits. The case is still under investigation.

"Even if it were a snowmobiler, whoever burned it, it's wrong," says Sandra Mitchell, public-lands coordinator for the snowmobile association. "It's flat wrong to destroy anyone's property."

Jonas and his partner, Sarah Michael, have been vocal in their concern about snowmobilers extending their range into slopes historically used by backcountry skiers, including slopes adjacent to Jonas' huts in the Smoky Mountains.

A new type of snowmobile called a "powder sled" is specially designed for climbing steep, deep-powder slopes. It has 2-inch-long rubber spikes across the drive track, and two or three times as much horsepower as the old snow machines. Idaho has 7,200 miles of groomed trail - one of the most extensive snowmobile networks in the nation - but the powder sleds are designed for adventure-seeking hill-climbers, off the groomed trail.

"Technology has changed the whole dynamic in snowmobiling," Jonas says. "Just before the fire, I skied into Coyote (yurt), and watched these guys dice up all the slopes directly below the yurt in five minutes. There isn't going to be anything left for skiers."

Reggie Sellers, owner of High Mark Recreation, a Polaris snowmobile dealer in Boise, disagrees. Snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders have to find ways to share the powder, he says.

Sellers believes in giving skiers enough space so they can enjoy their day, and snowmobilers can enjoy theirs. "We don't own the hills. We need places to play, and they need places to play. But if we fight about it too much, the Forest Service could shut everything down."

Let's talk

In hopes of finding a middle ground in the Wood River Valley, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has hired a professional mediator to work with five snowmobilers and five backcountry skiers. The group is called the Winter Alliance. The goal is for the two factions to work out a zoning plan for the upper valley by Oct. 1.

If the mediation team can devise a system that works, the model may be applied elsewhere in the West.

Sarah Michael is networking with backcountry skiers in Colorado, Montana and California to work on winter zoning plans for many national forests. She was in Washington, D.C., last week, lobbying the Forest Service and Congress on the issue.

"This problem is becoming epidemic on public lands in the West," Michael says. "To me, the solution is quite simple. We have to look at separating our areas of use. It's like smokers and nonsmokers in a restaurant. We need to look at dividing up the pie."

It is hard to zone the mountains for one use or the other, however. It's very difficult to mark off an area, it's hard to inform users about closures, and it's hard for the Forest Service to enforce closures with meager budgets and manpower.

"We could end up with an ocean of signs out there," says Ed Cannady, Sawtooth NRA recreation officer.

In the upper Wood River Valley, some backcountry skiers, such as Jonas, are suggesting that the best thing to do is to close the area to snowmobiling. "More and more people are seriously thinking that's the solution," says Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Sports in Ketchum and a member of the mediation team. "If you think about it, we've got the highest concentration of hut skiers, snowshoers and track skiers anywhere in the nation.

"Sun Valley, quite obviously, is highly ski-oriented. It's a big part of our economy. Ideally, it'd be great if we could all get along. But I'm not sure we can."

Mitchell says the groups must find a way to co-exist. "We have to respect each other's rights to use public lands," she says. "We're talking about recreation here, which is supposed to be fun. It shouldn't turn into a reason to hate."

Stephen Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stephen Stuebner


  • Sarah Michael, The Skiers Alliance, at her e-mail, [email protected], or Web site, www.skiersalliance.org;
  • Bob Jonas at Sun Valley Trekking, 208/726-1002.
  • Sandra Mitchell, public lands coordinator for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, 208/424-3870, or on the Web at www.ida.net/org/cy/.