Coalition finds harmony in the backcountry

Skiers, snowmobilers agree to give each other elbow room in Idaho


SUN VALLEY, Idaho - Last December, Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere challenged Nordic skiers and snowmobilers here to settle their differences, or he would do it for them.

"If I had to draw lines on the map, I promised both groups that they wouldn't like the result," LeVere says.

LeVere gave the 10-member Winter Coalition Map Committee only nine months to get the job done. With the aid of a professional mediator, they did it, and on Halloween, LeVere signed an agreement forged by the Winter Coalition that zones winter recreation uses in the Pioneer, Boulder and Smoky Mountains to reduce conflicts.

"You know, war doesn't work. We don't need to fight over every little thing," says Chris Klick of Triumph, Idaho, a snowmobiler and skier who served on the committee.

"I think all of us skiers were surprised we worked out an agreement," adds Kathy Rivers, a Ketchum, Idaho, attorney and Nordic skier who is on the committee. "The snowmobilers stepped up to the plate and relinquished a lot of terrain that had been open to them."

Klick notes that the real test of the agreement will come this winter when snowmobile riders voluntarily enforce the boundaries in the two most contentious areas - the East Fork of Baker Creek and upper Hyndman Creek. In those areas, signs will be posted to inform winter recreationists of closures. Maps and brochures will be printed to educate users as well.

Mark Satre, a snowmobiler in Steamboat Springs, Colo., agreed that enforcement will be difficult. "No matter what you do, when you draw a line in the snow, you get complaints," he says. "And we find that about 8 percent of the public is bound to go against the rules."

Conflicts between Nordic skiers and snowmobilers have become more protracted in mixed-use areas in the West due to an increase in skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers. In the Sun Valley area, complaints about new large-horsepower snowmobiles, known as "powder sleds," increased as riders were seen high-marking and descending slopes that had never been touched by snowmobiles before.

"Powder sleds use up a lot of country - there's no doubt about that," Klick says.

The Winter Coalition's new agreement zoned six areas north of Sun Valley covering 215,000 acres for motorized use, nonmotorized use, or no motorized use until March 15. Snowmobile riders agreed to a voluntary closure on powder slopes near three huts.

Seeing both sides

Several participants credited mediator Bob Werth with breaking the impasse by taking committee members through exercises that helped them understand the needs of the other side. Werth was paid $10,000 for his mediation services. In one exercise last spring, the coalition went skiing in the morning and snowmobiling in the afternoon.

"When we sat up at the Tornak Hut and looked around the slopes nearby, the snowmobilers realized how important those slopes were to skiers," says Andy Munter, a skier on the committee and co-owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum.

"Some of the skiers had never been on a snowmobile," adds Klick. "A lot of them didn't realize that one of our favorite parts of the day is when we reach the top of the ridge, turn off the engine, and enjoy the peace and quiet while we eat lunch."

Last April, negotiations could have stalled when an arsonist burned down the backcountry ski hut in the Boulder Mountains (HCN, 4/24/00). A few skiers openly blamed snowmobilers for the criminal act, but the Winter Coalition condemned it and pressed forward.

"I think the group had even more resolve after the hut burned," says Werth.

A lawyer and psychologist, Werth says it was crucial for participants to learn how to communicate their ideas in a manner that didn't offend other members.

"The group had to move from "I" to "we" to the task at hand," he says. "We did a lot of communication exercises to break down the tension."

After the field trip, the group was "dying" to start drawing lines on a map, said Werth. They broke the upper Big Wood River Valley into 12 distinct areas, and began to work on them in five teams, each consisting of one skier and one snowmobiler. Then the compromises began to take shape.

After LeVere signed the agreement, Idaho political leaders praised the Winter Coalition and the Forest Service for the successful effort.

"This is an excellent example of two feuding groups working together to ensure valid uses of our public lands continue," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

The agreement mirrors a similar arrangement between snowmobilers and skiers at Rabbit Ears Pass, near Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Vail Pass, where recreationists used natural geographic boundaries to separate use.

At busy Vail Pass, near Interstate 70, the White River National Forest imposed a $2-$5 daily user fee to pay for maps, signs and enforcement. "It takes a lot of patience, understanding and tweaking to get these things worked out," says Ev Elmendorf, who mediated the solution at Vail Pass. "I think the same approach needs to be used all over the country."

Steve Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

  • The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Deb Cooper, 208/727-5020; or public affairs officer Ed Cannaday, 208/727-5004;
  • Chris Klick, 208/726-3220;
  • Andy Munter, 208/726-8818;
  • The Backcountry Skiers Alliance in Colorado, or 303/494-5266.
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