Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Forest Service OKs ‘sidecountry’ skiing

2 outfitters withdraw applications

Express Staff Writer

The Ketchum Ranger District released Monday a decision to allow sidecountry ski guiding on Bald Mountain, but at a far more restricted level than had previously been proposed.

Three outfitters—Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Sun Valley Trekking and Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides—petitioned the Forest Service in October for the ability to take clients into the "out-of-bounds" skiing areas on the flanks of Bald Mountain. According to the Forest Service, the final proposal is the result of a joint effort among itself, the outfitters and Sun Valley Resort.

Sidecountry skiing, or ducking the rope of the ski area, is similar to backcountry skiing in terrain and lack of support services such as ski patrol, but with the added allure of easy access via chairlifts.

After an extensive public comment period and voiced concern over competition for limited powder, wildlife impacts and commercial use of the mountain, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said Friday that he had decided to issue a one-year permit to Sawtooth Mountain Guides to conduct sidecountry ski tours for 50 skier days during the 2012-13 ski season.

Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides and Sun Valley Trekking withdrew their applications prior to the decision. Joe and Francie St. Onge, owners of Sun Valley Trekking, said they withdrew because of community division over the issue.

"We have been shocked by the extreme vitriol which has characterized much of the opposition as well as the unethical propaganda campaign that was undertaken," the two wrote in a press release Monday. "We strongly believe that maintaining community is more important than fresh tracks, guided or not."

Nelson said he believes the final plan will put to rest much of the upset in the community, most of which centered on competition over fresh powder on Baldy's backside.

"It's a pretty low-impact plan in terms of skier days," Nelson said. "We did a pretty thorough job, considering the sensitivity of the topic."

According to a decision memo released by the Sawtooth National Forest, 40 percent of the public comments were in favor of the proposal and 60 percent were opposed.

Nelson said in the memo that part of the reason he issued the permit—despite the majority of commenters being opposed—was that outfitters and guides such as the Sawtooth Mountain Guides allow people to enjoy areas they may not have the resources or experience to enjoy on their own.

"Permitting [these] operations fulfills an important role in meeting the Forest Service's recreational and educational mandates," he wrote in the report.

Guides will only be allowed to travel in groups of a maximum of 10, with two guides and eight skiers. All skiers will be required to carry avalanche equipment and demonstrate the ability to use an avalanche beacon before ducking the rope.

Groups will also be prohibited from using Turkey Bowl, Sunspot Bowl, Scorpion, Little Scorpion or Heaven backcountry ski areas, nor will they be allowed to use Lodgepole Gulch, Mahoney Creek or Cow Creek, where there could be conflict with snowmobile users.

Groups may, however, access Bassett Gulch for 20 skier days per season.

Nelson said the guides could begin the tours next ski season, and will only be issued a one-year temporary permit. The permit will be reassessed at the end of the season, and Nelson said he will decide whether to reissue it.

"I'm sure there will be folks who won't be completely happy with [the decision]," he said. "But it allows us to move forward while showing respect to the other uses [in that area]."

Katherine Wutz:

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