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For the week of Nov. 17, 1999 through Nov. 23, 1999

Skiers, snowmobilers practicing quiet diplomacy

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Not all eternal and abrasive conflicts involve religion and politics in the international arena or race and economic classes at home.

We still have smokers vs. non-smokers, hunters vs. non-hunters, dog owners vs. non-dog owners, the dam and anti-dam crowds.

And don't forget snowmobilers vs. backcountry skiers.

An interesting sort of drama is being played out between those clashing groups—instead of acrimonious public fussing over who’s stepping on whose trails, quiet diplomacy behind closed doors seems to be the preferred modus operandi for settling this struggle.

Not being a snowmobiler or a backcountry skier, my knowledge of the competing interests is nil, except for what I can guess—roaring machines racing lickety-split through powder snow that’s coveted just as much by leg-and-arm-powered skiers seeking tranquility and grandeur in Nature.

I talked to two women with perhaps slightly different perceptions of whether progress is being made in coming together on a solution.

At a reception the other night of the Idaho Conservation League, I met Sarah Michael, a onetime lobbyist for California business, later executive director of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce and an avid backcountry skier.

Ms. Michael has formed the Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance of Idaho, whose brochure defines the group’s mission in clear enough language:

"The Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance of Idaho is a non-profit corporation formed to create and protect a quiet, non-motorized winter recreation experience for backcountry skiers, track skiers and snowshoers, and to find lasting solutions to user conflicts."

To that end, Ms. Michael says her volunteers will monitor whether snowmobilers are observing off-limits areas, and whether the Forest Service is enforcing what she calls federal regulations.

She’s also written a letter to Bill LeVere, supervisor of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, asking that a batch of backcountry areas in Blaine and Custer counties be designated as non-motorized recreation zones.

And then it was the turn of Nancy Monk, a past president of the Sawtooth Snowmobilers Club. Ms. Monk begged off any lengthy discussion, and for good reason: She says snowmobilers and backcountry skiers have been meeting behind closed doors under the aegis of the Blaine County Recreation District, vowing to avoid public discussion of their meetings or differences.

"We’re making progress," she said succinctly, and have resolved not to write any letters to the editor, hold no press conferences or otherwise air the nature and content of their talks.

Far be it from me to start a scrap. What a coup for these groups if they can sort out differences and find an amicable and enforceable solution to everyone’s satisfaction without a public blood-letting.

Blaine County surely is large enough to accommodate the needs and interests of 597 registered snowmobile owners, 3,500 season pass skiers and 7,800 day pass skiers.

Inevitably, each group includes hot-heads who’ll resist any accommodation. That’s unfortunate.

The clock can’t be turned back by skiers who’d ban snowmobilers. Nor can snowmobilers expect that the coming of motorized winter machines entitles them to the free run of every ski area.

The world already is filled with enough angry people.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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