Snowmobilers & Skiers Reach Agreement in Sun Valley

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by Adena Cook,
BRC Public Lands Director

Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere announced an historic agreement between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers at a press conference in Ketchum, Idaho on October 30th. This announcement was the culmination of a year's intense efforts by a special committee of snowmobilers and cross-country skiers challenged by LeVere to come up with a collaborative solution to the escalating conflict between the two groups in the Wood River Valley.

LeVere observed, "When I came on as Supervisor of the Sawtooth National Forest five years ago, the biggest issue in the Forest was not grazing or logging, but was the conflict between skiers and snowmobilers in this Sun Valley area."

The Wood River Valley, located in Blaine County, Idaho, contains a string of small towns, Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum, and the famous Sun Valley resort. Since Sun Valley's development as a ski mecca by entrepreneur Averill Harriman in the 1930s, the area has been a magnet for the rich and famous. Once sleepy little towns are now spruced up with restaurants and boutiques and are flanked by imposing mansions and estates. Blaine County politics have always been more liberal than the rest of conservative Idaho.

Historically, there was a "gentlemen's agreement" between cross-country skiers and snowmobilers that the areas north of Prairie Creek were used by the skiers and the Baker Creek area and south were used by snowmobilers. However, five or six years ago, this informal arrangement began to erode. New people moved to the area who were unfamiliar with the agreement. Technology changed. More people were using the area for winter fun. Conflicts escalated and enjoyment declined.

To begin to address the situation, the Blaine County Recreation District in 1996 formed a Wood River Winter Recreation Coalition, a group composed of skiers and snowmobilers. While the group achieved some success in addressing small issues, they were unable to resolve the larger problem of escalating conflict in favorite areas. By 1999, it was apparent that this effort was not going to succeed.

In December 1999, Supervisor Bill LeVere met with the group and challenged them, "Come up with a resolution, come up with a map in a year's time, or I'll do it for you."

Both groups realized that the agency was unlikely to develop a plan they'd each like. Snowmobilers knew that some closures were imminent and they were terrified of losing their favorite areas. Skiers wanted some assurance that they could enjoy a scenic, fun experience without encountering a snowmobile.

They formed a Winter Recreation Mapping Group composed of five snowmobilers and five skiers. To begin their collaboration, they hired Bob Werth of Werth and Werth Mediation of Ketchum, Idaho, to assist them. They began an intense process of communicating and collaborating that was difficult but ultimately successful.

Werth worked intensively with the group to lay the groundwork for addressing the issues. Members had to learn to understand and respect the other side. They had to learn to communicate and negotiate. They also had to frame the parameters of the issue and work out a timetable.

The group agreed to keep the proceedings confidential. Forest Service personnel could attend and observe. They provided technical information as requested and took minutes for the group, but otherwise did not participate.

Last winter, the group took a field trip where each member first skied, then snowmobiled to facilitate mutual understanding. They spent time in a back country yurt talking about management details that would be addressed later. They began to discuss criteria against which aspects of a plan's details would be tested. Subsequent development of these criteria was essential to the ultimate success of the project. All of this work preceded actual work with maps that would shape how allocations would be made on the ground.

There were many frustrations along the way. The group's progress was set back by an unfortunate incident this past year when someone burned a popular yurt near the headquarters of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Skiers accused the snowmobilers, increasing tensions between winter recreationists in the valley. Authorities still have not found the person responsible. In an effort to reconcile, volunteers on both sides rebuilt the yurt.

As the group faced their frustrations, snowmobile member Nancy Monk said, "We live together. We go to church together. Our children go to school together. What kind of example do we set if we walk away from these problems? What kind of community do we want?"

The group finally produced a map to present to Supervisor LeVere the first of October. The map is limited to the upper Wood River Valley. It allocates areas closed to winter motorized use, areas closed to winter motorized use until March 15 and open to winter motorized use after that (Hyndman Basin area), and areas open to winter use. The East Fork of Baker Creek is included in the area open to snowmobilers, but snowmobilers will be urged to stay on a designated route to protect the skiing opportunity adjacent to the area. In the areas open for winter motorized use, non-motorized recreationists will be advised that encounters with snowmobilers should be expected.

Supervisor LeVere took the group's recommendations and made his decision by special order. He also based his decision on advice from staff, review of the Forest Plan, other regulations, and the Endangered Species Act, professional judgment, and correspondence from other users. The decision makes provision for special use permittees and property owners to access their homes by snowmobile in the winter.

The group acknowledged that its work is just half over, even though they've gotten the agreement of their respective constituencies. While they have laid a concrete foundation for management of the area's winter recreation, implementation will make it a reality. The skiers have historically had a "courtesy patrol;" this will now be expanded to include snowmobilers. Signs and informational material need to be produced and distributed. The public at large and the press must be enlisted to implement the plan and make it work. The group will continue to meet this winter to refine issues as the plan's implementation is monitored.

The plan represents a compromise, according to Idaho State Snowmobile Association Public Lands Director Sandra Mitchell, "No one group received everything it wanted. In the end, we all had to give a little to get a little. The process was long and hard, but it was appropriate for this unique area."

Idaho Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson praised the decision.

"I praise the collaborative efforts by back country skiers and snowmobilers that produced a decision they both can agree upon, " Senator Craig said. "This is an excellent example of two feuding groups working together to ensure valid uses of our public lands continue. I applaud Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere for his leadership on this issue and hope that this effort can serve as a precedent on how to work out future land management disagreements."

Senator Crapo said, "These have been contentious issues in Idaho and elsewhere in the West, but it has been proven time and time again that bringing all sides to the table in a truly collaborative manner results in the best decision-making and this recreation plan is a good example of that."

Congressman Simpson said, "When local users sit down, work out their differences and solve the problem9the public wins. This is exactly what should happen all over Idaho."

Although the circumstances and physical locale of the Wood River Winter Recreation Mapping Project are unique, the process they used is not. With the assistance of a skilled facilitator, such as Bob Werth, elements of the process can be identified and used in other situations. It is hoped that this kind of collaboration will be the future of land management planning.--

--Adena Cook is Public Lands Director for the BlueRibbon Coalition. For questions or comments on this article, or on other Public Lands issues, she may be contacted at: BlueRibbon Coalition, P.O. Box 1427, Idaho Falls, ID, 83403. Phone: 208-524-3062, Fax:524-2836. Email bradena@sharetrails.org.

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