Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Last April a bunch of us spent a day cat skiing with Tim Kuss and his El Diablo Guides in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Tim was offering a spring special, so we filled the cabin with 10 friends and chugged up in the early light to El Diablo’s permit area on the west side of Molas Pass.
We’d done the same thing in 1998, when Tim led us to a smorgasbord of high-elevation powder shots and afternoon corn on a rolling, treeless, hundred-year-old burn. We all looked forward to a replay, but the perfection this time was marred by snowmobile tracks criss-crossing nearly every aspect of the basin. Looping tracks even high-marked straight up into the steepest couloirs. Tim downplayed the invasion and managed to find us some good skiing, but the ossified tracks rattled our edges, stole away our sense of wilderness and kick-started plenty of cabin conversation.
Were the ‘bilers deliberately trying to trash Tim’s product, his untracked powder? Was this the work of local club riders or an unwitting out-of-state group? What would happen to other favorite backcountry haunts, we wondered, now that snowmobiles have become so light and powerful, with new “paddle tracks” that allow a good rider to go almost anywhere in the high alpine? “Travel management is probably our biggest issue,” says Ann Bond, public affairs specialist for the San Juan National Forest. “Molas Pass is just a microcosm of a much bigger problem. You’ve got motorized versus non-motorized arguments, people who like horses and people who don’t like horses, commercial versus non-commercial biases. Everyone is unhappy with everyone else. And I’m afraid it’s just going to get more and more crowded.” Our public lands are being used, traveled, loved and fought over, in some cases to distraction. In Utah, the 26-year heli-skiing permitee Wasatch Powderbird Guides is fighting for its life against a cadre of determined urban environmentalists and backcountry skiers. On Colorado’s Vail Pass, freeway access has created a crazy quilt of overlapping, often competing, sometimes dangerous uses. Beginning cross-country skiers have miles of snow-packed roads to explore but risk being run down by squadrons of snowmobiles. Snowcat skiers may grind for miles out to Ptarmigan Pass only to find the cover chewed to ribbons by tow-in skiers and snowboarders who take turns driving the sled and yo-yoing the powder. I once saw two sleds fly up either side of Ptarmigan only to pass in mid-air, inches apart at a combined 100 mph, like jalopies at the intersection of a demolition derby.
On Buffalo Pass near Steamboat Springs, veteran snowcat operator Jupiter Jones has had to deal with snowmobiles for years. They use the roads he builds to climb to terrain they couldn’t otherwise reach. “I was sick the first time I saw a paddle track,” Jupe says. “I was like ‘uh-oh.’ We used to save our north-facing powder for later, ski the south and west first. But once the snowmobilers started poaching the good lines on the north immediately after a storm, then we had to go get it ourselves straight off.”
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” says Ken Kowynia, a lands and recreation specialist with Medicine Bow Routt National Forest. “Jupe was complaining about the snowmobilers. The snowmobilers were complaining about Jupe.” So Kowynia convened a series of four “winter task force” meetings at which the various users aired their differences.
“I was pretty hawkish about protecting Jupiter’s permit area,” says Kowynia. After all, the Forest Service had issued Jones a permit to operate on public land, to provide, for profit, recreational opportunities to the skiing public. Could the agency stand by and allow Jupiter’s “product,” and thus his commercial viability, to be tracked out? The Forest Service doesn’t allow competing uses, i.e. recreational snowmobiling, inside a permitted ski area. Should this be any different?
Kowynia knew that enforcing a closure, putting Steamboat Powdercats’ terrain off–limits to the ‘bilers, would just deepen the antagonism. And it would be impossible to enforce. “We just don’t have the money,” he sighs. Instead, they came up with “suggested use” patterns, signs and maps on the Buffalo Pass road.
Snowmobilers were asked to respect Powdercats’ prime operating area and use their distance-gobbling speed to access more remote terrain. Nordic skiers were allotted the closest-in regions, while the cats were given the middle ground.
“We’re getting pretty good compliance, actually,” says Kowynia, hopefully. “Our job is to get everyone into one room and talk. Each group is going to have to give something up, give up some favorite areas. Frankly, this is a huge problem.” After 16 years, Jones and his wife, Barbara, have sold the snowcat business and are shopping for a boat. No word from Jupe on whether the motorization of the backcountry drove them to early retirement.
It is oversimplification, of course, to characterize the debate as motorized versus non-motorized. The examples I’ve used here pit skiers against those recreationists known hereabouts as “gas bros.” But snowcat skiers are motorized too. As are heli skiers. And so too, if you want to get technical, are lift-riding, ski-area skiers. It’s just that theirs is a circumscribed, controlled environment.
In the backcountry, the conflict may be between snowmobile tow-in skiers and diesel-driven cat skiers. Or between mountaineers on foot and tow-in skiers. Skiers versus skiers. Should we, as Rodney King implored, “all just get along?” Or must it come to some form of segregation? On one hand, riding loud, gas-guzzling machines is right up there with the right to bear arms in this country. Smoking tobacco is legal, too. But smoking has been found to be detrimental to others in the vicinity who are not smoking. And thus their rights, and health, should be protected as well.
When I’m on foot, skinning in solitude, the roar of approaching snowmobiles is tantamount to someone lighting up a stogie at the next table. I can hear them coming, sometimes for miles. Two or three riders can track out a timberline basin in 10 minutes where three groups of 10 skiers each would need a week to lay waste the same terrain. While just exercising their rights, the snow machines negatively impact the quality of my experience. The opposite is never true.
The San Juan Forest’s Bond predicts some form of segregation-snowmobiles on one side of Molas Pass, skiers on the other-is inevitable. “Theoretically, our job is to make sure each user group gets the experience it is looking for. But as things get busier and busier, we’re all going to have to compromise, give up some freedoms.”
We are too many humans on a resource that once seemed limitless and is now proving to be anything but. Over-population inevitably engenders social if not physical conflict. Task forces are good; birth control may be more important. As another Forest Service employee said to me: “We shouldn’t be handing out maps; we should be handing out condoms.”