Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Is it a ?Sun Valley Serenade? for Hailey Ski Team?

Team lease for training on Bald Mountain running out

Amanda Stelling has been a rising star for the Hailey Ski Team this season. A brewing dispute could displace Hailey Ski Team racers next season. Photo by Mountain Express


- Express Staff Writers

The flatlands aren't the only place in the Wood River Valley where land is in demand. Bald Mountain has become hot property as well.

Baldy and its training terrain are at the center of a debate between Sun Valley Co. and the Hailey Ski Team.

The Hailey Ski Team, a nonprofit 501c3 corporation founded in 1980, is one of several groups that trains on the world-famous mountain.

The ski season of 2006-2007 is proving to be challenging, however, as the team is threatened with losing its place on Baldy after 15 years, according to Matt Luck, former chairman of the organization's board of directors.

According to Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman, the Hailey Ski Team is in the final months of its year-to-year lease agreement to train on Baldy's slopes.

The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation is also a leaseholder on the mountain. Leases came about when Sun Valley Co. was told by the U.S. Forest Service that it had to formalize user relationships in lease agreements.

The company is issued a special use permit for Bald Mountain by the U.S. Forest Service. The agreement determines all types of uses on Baldy, from lift construction and trail maintenance to commercial photography and paragliding.

"They can say who uses their runs," said Kurt Nelson, the Forest Service ranger for the greater Ketchum area. "As the holder of the permit, they have the ability to operate their operations as they see fit. Most areas host a home ski team."

Years ago, the Sun Valley alpine ski team was the only youth group to train on Baldy, according to Huffman.

"Nick Latham of Hailey came to me and wanted to know if we could accommodate another team from Hailey," Huffman said. "We told him we would accommodate the Hailey Ski Team training in Sun Valley, and they had work out details with mountain management. No one knew if it would be permanent."

Started by Phil Stelma in 1980, the Hailey Ski Team was a parent-run organization that specialized in training younger skiers.

"We were basically a farm team for Sun Valley," Latham said. "Once the kids hit 13 or 14, they usually moved over."

The Hailey Ski Team still prides itself in being a grassroots organization with volunteers who handle everything from administration and travel to letter writing and fund raising. It has no full-time paid employees.

Luck said Hailey Ski Team has always been a "small program because there's a real need for it. It's an opportunity for people in a family-based environment, with small trainer-to-skier ratios. It's worked really well."

What hasn't worked well, according to Huffman, is the fact that the user groups on Baldy have expanded, and the terrain hasn't.

"What causes the problem is there is a finite amount of terrain on Baldy that has been committed to ski racing, basically Greyhawk, Cozy and Hemingway, and it will only accommodate a finite number of people.

"What has happened in the last 15 years is a very significant expansion in the interest in ski racing by not only the young people, but by masters and everyone in between.

"From a ski school, mountain and terrain point of view, it is in our best interest for the Hailey Ski Team and Sun Valley Ski Team to become one part of the same organization, and we urged that to happen."

Talks between Sun Valley Co., Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation and Hailey Ski Team have been ongoing, but nothing has been resolved, leading to what Luck called an "ultimatum" by Sun Valley Co.

"This fall, we were given an ultimatum that this would be the last year on Baldy," Luck said. "No one wants to take it lying down. We just want equal time."

Huffman said Sun Valley Co. has renewed Hailey Ski Team's lease twice in the past two years, but does not want to keep doing that.

"At that time, we told Hailey Ski Team that our intention is to have one agreement with one team and urged them to combine efforts with the Sun Valley ski team," he said. "That hasn't happened."

Not surprisingly, many of the Hailey Ski Team parents are concerned about the situation.

"It's a great group of parents and kids and a great option," said Hulen Meadows resident Nina Fox. "We just want to stay around. I think everyone should do what's right for their kids, and it should be positive."

John Sweek, Hailey Ski Team board chairman, said, "We'd like to be left alone to do our deal and provide an option to valley families that are interested. That's it."

Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Director Don Wiseman maintains that folding the Hailey Ski Team into his organization would be challenging for the kids and parents.

"If it comes to that—if we're the team that ends up on the mountain—we would do everything to work with Hailey, make it easy and as painless as possible," he said. "Whatever happens, we'd work it out for the best of the kids."

Sweek, however, had reservations about folding the two organizations together.

"We're doing our best to do whatever Sun Valley asks of us," he said. "We take leftover time, and accepted second-tier status as a ski team."

Nonetheless, Huffman credited the Hailey Ski Team for its efforts.

"I give them credit," Huffman said. "They are working much more closely in terms of racing terrain with Sun Valley ski team than ever before.

"But decision-making time is coming up again for next year. We have renewed their lease twice in the past two seasons, and we don't want to do that again, whether or not we prefer to work with one team. If Hailey Ski Team and Sun Valley ski team work as a unit that would be significant."

For her part, Fox said all the gerrymandering about organizational structure and permits misses the point. When push comes to shove, it's about building a positive experience for young athletes.

"It's nice to have a choice, but it doesn't matter what happens between the adults," she said. "The kids rise above it."

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