Can skiers and snowmobilers coexist?

With conflict on the rise, "quiet" recreationists want segregation in the backcountry

  • On Tumalo Mountain above Dutchman Flat, a backcountry skier makes way for a snowmobiler

  • Dutchman Flat map

    Diane Sylvain

Dutchman Flat is the place to launch a backcountry ski trip, snowmobile ride or snowshoe jaunt in central Oregon's high desert. Located on the Deschutes National Forest at 6,400 feet, the flat sits at the end of plowed Century Drive, the thoroughfare to the high country from this former mill town situated along the Deschutes River.

It should be a wintertime Shangri-la: Park there, and miles of open glades, steep volcanoes and pockets of old-growth forest await. But Dutchman Flat has become a hotbed of tension, as backcountry skiers face off with snowmobilers.

With no speed limit to hold them back, and with the enormous, snow-covered flat beckoning them forward, many snowmobilers hit the throttle on machines capable of speeds over 80 miles per hour. They often do this within close range of skiers and snowshoers, creating conditions for a serious accident, according to Dale Neubauer, co-founder of Wild Wilderness, a Bend-based environmental organization.

In response to complaints, Marv Lang, recreation specialist from the Deschutes National Forest, told a group of trail users in October that agency officials had decided to set a speed limit for snowmobiles. But in November, following a volley of complaints, the Forest Service backed off. Lang says the agency lacks the rangers to enforce a speed limit, so officials will just ask snowmobilers to be considerate.

"With only two (officers) on the district and with everything else going on during the winter months, we cannot afford to be out there every day or every week or every weekend day," Lang says. Skiers protested the agency's change of heart. Neubauer points out that there are not always enough police to enforce the lower speed limits around schools when children are present. But, he says, "the public at large supports such rules, and anyone who would argue against the need and usefulness of these 'restrictions' would be considered an extremist."

Snowmobilers congratulated the agency for abandoning the idea. "We have never had an accident up there. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, and God help me if it does happen," says John Spieger, director of the local chapter of the Oregon State Snowmo-bile Association. He adds, "We will put a tremendous amount of pressure out there on our members not to speed."

On a collision course

The situation at Dutchman Flat is not unique. As more people flock to the backcountry in the winter, the slopes and glades are becoming crowded. Sally Ferguson, program manager of the Boise, Idaho-based group Winter Wildlands Alliance, says conflicts between nonmotorized users -- skiers, dogsledders and snowshoers -- and snowmobilers are on the rise in at least seven Western states: Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and California.

Rob Cruz, district ranger for the Logan Ranger District on Utah's Wasatch-Cache National Forest, says increasing reports of confrontations between snowmobilers and skiers have put his agency in the uncomfortable position of policing winter recreation.

"I am not aware of any physical violence out there on the hill, but I know there have been more and more (reported) conflicts, with people trying to run people over, or skiers sticking out ski poles," Cruz says. Environmental groups are calling on the agencies to address these issues before they become large problems.

Marcus Libkind is president and founder of Snowlands Network, based in Livermore, Calif., an organization that works on behalf of nonmotorized winter sports. He says officials on the Eldorado National Forest, southwest of Lake Tahoe, should do more analysis of the snowmobile grooming program in order to address the problems resulting from a steady increase in snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers over the past 15 years.

In Nevada, on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, environmentalists echo those complaints, saying agency officials must analyze the effects of snowmobile trail grooming, including the impact it has on displacing skiers and snowshoers.

Is segregation the answer?

Many nonmotorized users say the only answer is to separate those who drive through the snow from those who shoosh through it.

"It is just like smokers and nonsmokers," says Ferguson, with Winter Wildlands. "Shared areas do not work. The experiences between snowmobilers and skiers are entirely different."

Ferguson maintains that the agencies could segregate popular winter areas when they update their travel plans, but says that rarely happens. Even when officials do separate uses, she says, they tend to skimp on the areas open only to human-powered sports.

For instance, officials at the Wasatch-Cache National Forest recently revised the forest plan. The agency designated about 548,000 acres for winter recreation, with 7,500 closed to motorized use, and 525,000 acres open.

Clark Collins, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents snowmobilers and off-road vehicle users, insists that snowmobilers can share the trails without harming the experience or the environment.

"It seems that there are some nonmotorized recreation groups that are deliberately trying to stir up the nonmotorized community to create the appearance that there is a much larger conflict than I think there really is," he says. "The fallout is that in some areas, it has created some real tension, and created situations where the land managers in some instances make bad decisions."

While Collins says it sometimes makes sense to separate users, everyone ought to be able to get along.

"Multiple use was fine when the machines weren't so powerful," responds Ferguson. "Now these snowmobiles are intruding on areas that traditionally only backcountry skiers were able to access. In addition to the noise and the pollution, when these machines go through, they dice up the snow. It doesn't work to have them together."

The author reports from Bend, Oregon.

Wild Wilderness, 541-385-5261

Winter Wildlands Alliance, 208-336-4203

Oregon State Snowmobile Association, 541-536-3668

BlueRibbon Coalition, 208-237-1008

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