The one-year permit, signed by Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza, will allow Telski guides to take clients on about 2,500 acres of USFS service lands adjacent to the Telluride Ski Resort in Upper Bear Creek, Lower Bear Creek, the East Fork of Bear creek, Lena Basin and the Alta Lakes Basin, all referred to as “sidecountry” – the term used for terrain that lies outside a permitted ski area but is easily accessed from its chairlifts.
“I think it’s an asset to add a guided ski tour as an option for people, versus just going on your own,” said Schutza, whose agency approached Telski about offering the guided tours on the public lands made accessible by five backcountry gates installed on the perimeter of the ski area in the fall of 2009.
Prior to those gates’ installation, an ineffective closure order on Bear Creek was in place that did little to dissuade those seeking the deep powder and sublime thrills for which the drainage is known.
“The next step was to not only have Bear Creek open to the public, but to offer a guided service for those who are not familiar with the area,” and who don’t understand winter backcountry travel, Schutza said.
“In general, if you don’t know what you’re doing, go with a guide; if you’re unfamiliar with the area or want to have a better experience, go with a guide,” she continued.
Prices will range from $275 for a semi-private full-day trip to $625 for a private full-day trip, to which up to three additional participants may be added for $95 per person. The prices do not include the cost of lift tickets.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to educate people who want to go in, or who are going in the Creek now,” said Telski Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley. “It’s an opportunity to learn what the protocols are, and how to ski the Creek.”
“As it stands now, it’s a free for all.”
The permit allows guided trips to exit the ski area only through the Gold Hill, Palmyra Peak and Alta Saddle Access backcountry access gates, and allocates Telski a total of 300 service days for winter backcountry tours including 250 in Bear Creek and 50 at Alta Lakes. Total service days are calculated by multiplying each service day by the number of clients on a trip, so a half-day or full-day trip attended by four clients would count as a total of four service days.
The guiding program will also rely entirely on avalanche forecasting and may not use explosives or conduct any type of avalanche hazard mitigation in the operating area, according to Schutza’s decision memo.
Earlier in the process, the Town of Telluride, joined by the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, raised two issues with the permit application.
The first regarded the potential for the Telski trips to violate a conservation easement held by the SMCF prohibiting commercial activity in the town-owned Bear Creek Preserve in Lower Bear Creek. As originally proposed, guides and clients would have crossed through the Preserve to exit Bear Creek.
In response to that concern, Telski amended its proposal to ensure that its trips do not enter the Preserve, and travel on Forest Service lands only to connect with the San Miguel County-owned Bear Creek Road, which is not subject to the terms of the conservation easement, to exit Bear Creek.
To do that, however, the tours must stay on the Wasatch Trail, which both government officials and private citizens have criticized as dangerous and unrealistic – dangerous because it travels under multiple avalanche chutes and across an open bridge, and unrealistic because it would be difficult to find in extreme winter conditions.
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger wrote of the Wasatch Trail in a letter to Schutza, “It appears that this anticipated route will be a more challenging route with enhanced exposure to greater avalanche danger” than other preferred routes.
First, the route cannot be accomplished by snowboard without hiking, local snowboarder Gabe Wright wrote to the USFS. Additionally, “The Wasatch Trail goes directly under four of the largest avalanche chutes in the Bear Creek basin...Nellie's Mine, Revelation, Tempter, and Sioux 6 – ALL [emphasis his] of which this year have released full course across the Wasatch Trail and the Bear Creek Trail multiple times,” he continued.
Wright, who has traveled in Bear Creek for over 16 years, told The Watch: “I have spent way more time back there [in Bear Creek] than I should,” noting he just logged his 100th day this season.
“That’s an excuse people are making that don’t like the idea of us guiding in the Creek,” Riley rebutted, noting that there are avalanche chutes throughout Bear Creek, and the point is that Telski guides are trained to avoid dangerous situations.
“Our guides are well aware of how to ski the Creek and when to ski the Creek,” he said. “We know the terrain, we’ve mapped the terrain. We know where avalanches start, where they stop and under what conditions they run.”
“There are times when we’re not going to go; when a client wants to go in the Creek and we’re going to say no.”
Yet the controversy is not so easily explained away if the remainder of Wright’s letter is any indication.
“I am a huge supporter of Telski's expansion of their ski-able terrain. I support the expansion of gates into Bear Creek as well as the legalized skiing of the Bear Creek drainage. However, I do not believe that Telski should be allowed to operate commercially on the Bear Creek Trail.”
“I feel that Telski is attempting to fool the Forest Service into approving a plan that works only on paper.”
Another point of contention for the town, the Conservation Foundation and even San Miguel County, is the process by which the USFS granted the approval.
“Were disappointed that the Forest Service granted this application,” said Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser. “We feel, as does the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, as holders of conservation easement, that it doesn’t allow for community input. Actually, we feel that there should have been a more public process.”
“I’m very disappointed that the Forest Service would issue a permit like that, most especially when they heard such strong opposition,” said SMCF Executive Director Gary Hickcox, who clarified that his organization’s concern is only that the Bear Creek Preserve conservation easement prohibition on commercial activity may be violated.
“The reality is that there is a way they can actually ski down into Bear Creek and stay on Forest Service property and stay on Bear Creek Road without trespassing on the Bear Creek Preserve,” he said. “The reality is that conditions may not allow them to and would put them in the position of trespassing on the Bear Creek Preserve where no commercial activity is allowed.”
That said, “We don’t oppose private skiers going through the Preserve,” he said. “The whole point of the purchase was public access; the public can use it, this is why we bought it.”
“My big problem here is the process,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May. “There’s been no public notice.”
Schutza disagreed, noting in her memo that per USFS policy, “No single technique is required or prescribed for public scoping. The responsible official has the discretion to determine what level of scoping is conducted.”
Additionally, the Forest Service contacted the Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County governments, the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, Sheep Mountain Alliance, and existing Bear Creek special use permit holders including the San Juan Outdoor School, Telluride Helitrax, Telluride Mountain Guides, the Telluride Academy, Herb Walker Tours and Adventures Cross Country, prior to issuing the permit.
“It’s a matter of terminology,” she said. “The public was involved.”
She later added, “This action actually falls into a category as having such a low impact that I didn’t even have to write a decision memo.”
For his part Riley believes a double standard may be at work, noting that other commercial operators have violated the Bear Creek Preserve conservation easement without similar scrutiny.
For example, “People are hiring guides underground to ski from Ophir into Telluride, it’s done illegally and it’s going through the Preserve lands,” he said.
“We jumped through a bunch of hoops and amended our proposal, and they still haven’t done anything about the non-Telski commercial activities that are occurring there.”
“We will deal with those other entities,” said Fraser.
“It’s very important that we have a level playing field and a single standard,” said Schutza. “We need to have the same standard for everyone.”
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