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, www.pawprince.com
  • 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.

CONTACTS:

Save Our Canyons www.saveourcanyons.org, 801-363-7283

Wasatch Powderbird Guides www.powderbird.com, 801-742-2800

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.