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For the week of Feb. 9 through Feb. 15, 2000

Skiers, snowmobilers draw line in the snow over accessibility

Confrontation especially heated in Sun Valley area


By DAN GALLAGHER
Associated Press Writer

BOISE—More people are venturing into the backcountry on their mountaineering skis these days to bag ``freshies''—those slopes of light snow untouched by tracks and noise.

But new light, nimble snowmobiles are now able to reach those same pristine spots that were inaccessible to the heavier old sleds.

The two are now clashing.

The fans of the "silent snow sports'' are demanding nonmotorized status in these popular areas. Snowmobilers are not about to be shut out.

The battle is being waged from California's Sierra Nevadas to Vermont’s Green Mountains, but it is especially heated around Sun Valley, a pre-eminent destination for skiers since 1936.

"What's happening in Idaho is happening other places and not only in the West,'' said Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Missoula, Mont.-based Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads. "In the interaction between skiers and snowmobilers, the skiers end up going elsewhere. Just like wildlife displacement, there's recreational displacement.''

Sun Valley cross-country advocate Charlie Foss learned the hard way along a skier-only route of the Boulder Mountain's North Valley Trail System.

"This was actually away from any snowmobiling trails,'' he said. "I came around a corner and got in a snowmobile rut. I fell on my right side and really destroyed myself. It wasn't even close to where

those snowmobilers should have been.''

The Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance in Sun Valley is pressing for more nonmotorized acres for skiers on the Sawtooth National Forest. Alliance President Sarah Michael said that there are only 10,000 acres set aside for skiers, leaving 1.7 million acres open for both skiers and snowmobiles.

Last week, the alliance joined similar backcountry groups in California and Colorado to form a national organization.

"I have been working on this problem for 10 years,'' said Ev Elmendorf of the Colorado Backcountry Skiers Alliance. "In some parts of Colorado, the conflicts between skiers and snowmobile riders have reached crisis proportions and someone is going to get hurt.''

Michael said federal regulations require the Forest Service to consider the "recreational preferences of user groups and the settings needed to provide quality recreation opportunities'' in the forest planning process.

There are systems of huts northwest of Sun Valley and in the Stanley Basin where skiers can stay overnight and climb the nearby slopes for telemark skiing. Increasingly, Michael said, snowmobilers with their 2-stroke exhaust and clamor are buzzing by at the huts.

But Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition off-road vehicle group, said its members have gone the extra mile to get along with skiers.

"There already are separate opportunities,'' he said. "Our snowmobilers have been working with the land managers to accommodate skiers in appropriate areas already.''

His take was the reverse of the skiers'. Collins contends the bulk of the skiers have been staying in short, groomed loops near roads and are now venturing into the hinterlands, which have been the province of snowmachines.

Amid the controversy, a coalition of skiers and snowmobilers formed in the Sun Valley area about five years ago to find some middle ground, Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere said.

It was still searching last winter, when early snow meant more recreationists in the field and a spike in complaints from the motorized and nonmotorized factions.

LeVere opposes putting the Forest Service in the middle and challenged the coalition to work out the differences. The members agreed last month to come up with a solution by Oct. 1 although LaVere would still have the final say.

Sandra Mitchell of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association is an advocate for the mechanized machines, but she has been a coalition member from the start and remains optimistic. She predicted some areas will be set aside for skiers, some for snowmobile riders and some trails may be shared.

"Reasonable people can work out a solution. We have to start with the premise it’s public land and one group doesn't have a greater claim,'' she said. "You can use the word ‘conflict' or the word ‘contact.' Sometimes you have a conflict, but most of the times it's managing contacts.''

 

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