Two weeks in the West

As more people play in the snow, skirmishes heat up.



“The culture in the Salt Lake Valley is a plus for anybody who is not avant-garde, urban or cutting-edge.”

—Respondent in a survey of Utah executives. The study found that Utah’s low rate of unemployment could be a problem for economic growth.

THE SCENE: A mountain meadow full of untouched sugary snow.

ENTER (stage left): A cross-country skier. Steam rises around her face. The only sound is the pounding of her heart.

ENTER (stage right): A snarling snowmobile, ridden by an adrenaline-charged young man.

The skier gives the sledder the finger for wrecking her backcountry experience; the snowmobiler glares back, knowing she poses a threat to his freedom to ride.


This scene is playing out all over the mountain West this winter. More people are enjoying the backcountry snow now than ever before: 11.9 million ride snowmobiles and 12.3 million cross-country ski or snowshoe, four times more than 20 years ago. As a result, public land that once would have remained people-free from November to May has become a crowded battleground.

In Utah, spandex-clad two-plankers are irked at the U.S. Forest Service for opening about half of a 10,000-acre swath of Logan Canyon to sledheads. The area had previously been nonmotorized. Some claim the Forest Service is biased, pointing to the fact that 70 percent of public land in the West’s snowy states is already open to snowmobiles.

And sledheads up on the Montana-Idaho line don’t want to give up any of that land. They’re fretting about potential wilderness designation for Mount Jefferson, a popular snowmobiling area. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and local county commissioners have joined the motorized cause. They worry that cutting off access will hurt the local economy; environmentalists counter that there are plenty of other places for sledders to play.

Then there’s Yellowstone National Park — ground zero in this fight. The park’s draft plan would allow 720 snowmobiles into the park each day, close to the average number that buzzed through the park’s gates in December (up 19 percent from 2005). But that concerns the Environmental Protection Agency, which wants the Park Service to pay closer attention to potential impacts on air quality and human health from the noise and copious exhaust the machines cough up. Skier visits to the park are down 42 percent from last year so far.

It’s not just the exhaust that can hurt people. A snowmobiler collided with a snowboarder near Aspen, Colo., in January, severely injuring the snowboarder. Near Bozeman, Mont., a day earlier, a Utah woman riding a snowmobile crashed and was killed. Perhaps that’s what Ski-Doo’s 2006 motto, “Sharpening the edge of excitement,” referred to.

Tidbits from the West…

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth retired Jan. 12 from the post he held for six years. Gail Kimbell, the first woman ever to lead the agency, will replace him. Kimbell served as supervisor of forests in Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska. Environmentalists are not cheering: Kimbell helped create President Bush’s controversial Healthy Forests program.

It’s looking as if 2008 may be the year the West emerges as a big player in national politics. On Jan. 22, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, threw his “sombrero” (as the New York Post’s headline condescendingly put it) into the presidential ring. Just 11 days earlier, national Democrats chose Denver over New York to hold the party’s 2008 convention. There’s more: Nevada will hold the second caucus in the nation; New Mexico, Arizona and Utah will hold presidential primaries on Feb. 5, giving them more influence in the nominating process. Republican early favorites include Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon Church.

The 700-mile fence proposed for the southern border will cost a bundle of cash — as much as $49 billion, says the Congressional Research Service — if it ever gets built; Democrats in Congress, now holding the reins of power, aren’t too excited about it.

Furbearer Facts

19 Total number of wolverines trapped in Montana, 2002.

$18/$98 Average pelt price for an Oregon river otter in 1954 and 2005.

$99/$345 Average pelt price for a Montana bobcat in 1999 and 2005.

580,000 Number of pelts produced by Utah’s 70 mink farms annually.

$8,999 Sale price of a full-length bobcat coat with shawl collar from Henig Furs. (Red fox vest, beaver sheared knitted jacket, coyote jacket: $1,999 each.)

20 Estimated number of pelts to make a full-length bobcat jacket.

$1,199.99 Cost of nutria bomber jacket, on special at

176 Feral cats accidentally captured by Idaho trappers 2004-2005.

400 Number of renowned fashion designers showing fur fashions, coats and fur-trimmed merchandise, compared to 42 in 1985.

12 Percent of Americans who own fur clothing.

Sources: Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks; Oregon Furbearer Harvest and Pursuit Season Proposals; National Agricultural Statistics Service; National Trappers Association; Responsive Management study: American Attitudes Toward Scientific Wildlife Management and Human Use of Fish and Wildlife; Fur Information Council of America; Idaho Fish and Game Report.)

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