TELLURIDE – In what could be called a victory for private land rights over public lands access, the U.S. Forest Service announced last week it would close backcountry access points into Upper Bear Creek at the request of private landowners whose holdings abut public land. The announcement generated a torrent of criticism from many in the Telluride community, from environmental activists to backcountry skiers who have long considered Telluride’s Bear Creek to be a local icon and public access to it sacrosanct.
While specific to Telluride and its Bear Creek backcountry, the uproar currently raging amid Telluride’s citizenry is similar to heated conversations erupting in backcountry ski havens elsewhere. Those conversations, while unique to their location and specific political climate, nonetheless relate to one common question: How public are public lands?
Parallel debates rage across the ski industry, in Utah and Wyoming
Last month a group of close to a dozen landowners whose properties are located within the Cardiff Bowl area of Big Cottonwood Canyon, near Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Utah, sent a petition to Intermountain Forest Service Supervisor Harv Forsgren requesting the federal agency to require permits for all backcountry users of the Tri-Canyon area of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Millcreek Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The seven-page letter, dated November 30, inflamed what had heretofore been a smoldering conflict between private landowners and backcountry skiers in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The letter’s authors proposed requiring all backcountry users to purchase a permit, at $3 per day (or $300 per season), which would be available only to “those who have acknowledged the private land inholdings of the backcountry ski permit area, have been supplied information about the boundaries of these inholdings, and sign a liability waiver in favor of the Forest Service, State, County, and private landowners.”
The authors went on to make the case for regulation of winter backcountry use in the area, stating that private landowners are at risk of lawsuit under the current schema.
These landowners are not, however, against all forms of skiing on their properties. As they state early in the letter, many of them lease their land to Wasatch Powderbirds for heli-skiing purposes. Many of the conflicts historically raised over access to oft-skied land in Big Cottonwood Canyon stem from what the letter authors describe as “economic racism.”
“The ‘pure’ skiers who name-call ‘paying’ skiers ‘slacker recreationists’… are criminally trespassing on our heavily posted private lands. The lack of Forest Service permits for backcountry skiers in the non-wilderness designated Wasatch Mountains encourages criminal trespass on our lands, and the hoarding of premium ‘powpow’… by freeloaders and bowl-hoarders,” the letter states, making it clear that these private landowners want, as they later write, “these ‘pure’ skiers to be included in the cost ski tax matrix.”
The letter has spawned an outburst from the backcountry skiing community, most notably on online forums like telemarktalk.com, where, respondents’ reactions ranged from thoughtful discussion about whether more fees and regulations, or simply better enforcement of existing public lands boundaries, were called for; to the expected lamentations that the letter-writers are just rich “whiners.”
A less inflammatory but no-less-controversial conundrum about backcountry access is also brewing currently in Wyoming, where the debate is neither over private land rights nor the expense of public land access, but rather the safety issues surrounding backcountry skiing in certain high-trafficked areas.
An article that ran in the Jackson Hole Daily on December 2, titled “Skiers Worry WYDOT,” reported that the Wyoming Department of Transportation was considering not plowing parking areas on Teton Pass, in an attempt to discourage backcountry users who could, in turn, trigger avalanches onto nearby highways.
WYDOT officials were quoted in the article as being “shocked” that so many backcountry users frequented the area in high avalanche conditions, and were therefore worried about motorist safety on Highway 22 near the summit of Teton Pass. That highway crosses six named avalanche paths between the towns of Wilson, Wyo., and Victor, Ida. Skiers have in the past have triggered avalanches that have run up to and even across the highway, the article stated.
Meanwhile, local public lands users decried the no-plowing proposal, which would severely restrict winter access to the Teton Pass backcountry. “The top of the pass is likely the most popular winter trailhead on the Bridger-Teton National Forest and sees hundreds of cars and trucks a day,” writer Brandon Zimmerman noted.
Tim Young, director of the local trails advocacy group Friends of Pathways, said in a statement: “Teton Pass is a historic trailhead that provides essential public land access. The top of the pass must remain open for winter access to the National Forest,” going on to urge WYDOT to help fund backcountry safety education programs before restricting access to National Forest areas.
Upper Bear Creek Timeline
Although the players in the still-unfolding backcountry access drama here in Telluride like controversial land developer Tom Chapman and Telluride Ski and Golf CEO Dave Riley are relative newcomers to the overall conversation, the debate about winter access into Bear Creek is not new. Here is a look at Bear Creek’s storied past, and what has made it famous (or perhaps infamous) in Telluride’s history.
Spring of 1987: Following four skier deaths, three in Bear Creek, access to Bear Creek closed by the USFS and Telluride Ski Company A string of avalanche-related deaths in Bear Creek during the winter of 1986-87 leads to a permanent federal closure of all of Bear Creek. Prior to this point, boundary management of the area was “mellow yellow,” meaning enforcement of the boundary was lax. But the winter of 86-87, one skier is buried and killed in Contention; two skiers are caught and killed after an avalanche that released in Deep and Dangerous swept them into the terrain trap below (now called the Graveyard) and yet another skier is buried and dies while traversing Little Rose. Early season 1988: The Gold Hill Access Gate is established, giving access to Upper Bear Creek. Lower Bear Creek, like Contention and Reggae, remains under federal closure.
February 14, 1989: Three skiers are caught in an avalanche in Temptation Chute; one survives. Three local skiers are caught and buried in a slide that rips through Temptation Chute; just one of them, local ski instructor Todd Richards, who is partially buried, survives.
November 1990: Gold Hill Access Gate closed. Following a Valentine’s Day 1989 double fatality in Temptation Chute, TSG, the Forest Service, and nearby landowners cannot reach consensus regarding management of Bear Creek and the neighboring ski area boundary. All of Bear Creek accessible from the ski area becomes illegal to ski. It will be ten years before skiers can access the area – legally, at least.
April 10, 1998: Two locals taken to jail in handcuffs after run-in with Forest Service Ranger in Bear Creek. Himay Palmer and Matt Lewis are skiing out the Bear Creek trail, on an Ophir-to-Telluride, tour when they are stopped by the Forest Service ranger stationed there in an attempt to enforce the often-ignored federal closure east of the ski area boundary. Assuming the skiers had violated the closure (they had, in fact, skied the legal southern route, beginning in Ophir), the ranger takes Palmer and Lewis to the San Miguel County Jail – in handcuffs – after spraying Palmer with Mace. The clash became the most infamous altercation in Bear Creek’s history, inflaming what has been a smoldering initiative among local backcountry skiers and other supporters to reopen access to Bear Creek. Charges against the skiers, which included “threatening a forest officer,” are ultimately dropped.
2000: Backcountry Access Point at the top of Gold Hill (Hillary Step) installed. Legal access is reinstated to much – but not all – of Bear Creek. A well-organized drive mounted by local backcountry enthusiasts, most notably the Telluride Mountain Club, who for years leading up to the 2000 gate installation lobby heavily with their “Free Bear Creek” campaign, is credited with restoring public access to the area. The acres east of the Telluride Ski Area boundary, from the top of Chair 9 to the top of Gold Hill (including the oft-skied routes Contention and Reggae) are still considered a “Level 3” internal permanent and external federal closure.
March 15, 2002: Snowboarder Erica Ghini becomes Bear Creek’s first avalanche fatality in 15 years. Thirty-one-year-old San Diego resident Erica Ghini and Telluride local Martin Simpson duck the ski area boundary rope into Temptation Bowl, triggering a massive slide that leaves Simpson stranded atop a cliff band with life-threatening injuries and Ghini dead due to suffocation. Reports indicate at least a dozen other tracks in Temptation Bowl, prior to the avalanche. Ghini’s body is not recovered until later that spring.
February 13, 2005: Local injured in massive slide in Nellie Bowl. Longtime local and avid Bear Creek skier Brian O’Neill is flown via helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction following a terrifying ride in an avalanche that rips through Nellie Bowl. O’Neill, who accesses the area via the Gold Hill backcountry gate, takes a 2,000-foot ride, sustaining two broken vertebrae in his cervical spine. He makes a full recovery. Later that winter, another local suffers a tib-fib fracture (not avalanche-related) while skiing the then-illegal Regular Route. He is charged with violating a federal closure and his skiing privileges are revoked for two years at the Telluride Ski Area.
December, 2008: Ski area opens Revelation Bowl. Telluride Ski and Golf CEO Dave Riley publicly expresses concern about winter travel into Bear Creek, as it relates to the opening of Revelation Bowl and its associated Revelation Lift (which deposits skiers at the gateway to Upper Bear Creek, which skiers had to hike to reach, prior to the lift’s installation). The Ski Area announces it is considering expanding its boundaries to include parts of Bear Creek. Permit for a snow study in Bear Creek is granted later that winter.
October, 2009: The Forest Service announces it will add three new backcountry access points at Ski Area boundary. Regular Route (Reggae) and Contention become legal to ski, after the Forest Service installs two new access points at the boundary near the top of the Telluride Ski Area’s Lift 9. Another access point is slated for the top of Palmyra Peak, offering access to Lena and Alta Lakes basins.
January 29, 2009: Local skier suffers broken bones and punctured lung in Bear Creek avalanche. Eric Zuaro is buried after an avalanche carries him 1,500 feet while skiing in Upper Bear Creek, but rescued by his ski partner. He is evacuated by Helitrax helicopter and makes a full recovery.
January 25, 2010: Local skier self-rescues after being injured in E-Ticket slide. Off-duty ski patroller Garan Mangan-Dimuzio is injured following a ride in E-Ticket. Although he is injured, he evacuates himself, and is later taken to Montrose Memorial Hospital for surgery. He makes a full recovery.
March, 2010: USFS issues permit for Telluride Ski and Golf’s Backcountry Guiding service; The plan never gets off the ground, however, with access to Upper Bear Creek closed the following season.
Meanwhile, Chapman purchases property in Bear Creek; Days after the Backcountry Guiding permit is issued to TSG, controversial land developer Tom Chapman purchases property in Bear Creek, essentially severing public access by threatening to enforce Colorado trespass laws. Telski purchases Bear Creek property adjacent to Chapman purchase. Days following the Chapman purchase, TSG purchases a much smaller property adjacent to the 40-acre Chapman purchase. TSG CEO Dave Riley says the timing is coincidental.
December 7, 2010: Upper Bear Creek gates officially close. Private landowner concerns lead to the closure of Upper Bear Creek. Norwood Ranger District’s Judy Schutza maintains that despite newspaper reports indicating otherwise, the properties indicated in the closure (Chapman’s and Irene West’s) do indeed touch – thus making trespass probable if gates were to stay open. TSG CEO Dave Riley says the ski company supports the Forest Service decision, allowing that TSG plans to “continue to work on resolving the issue.” In the meantime, the Telluride Ski Resort states that it expects guests to abide by the closures.