Giving a Voice to the Backcountry
Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA) is approaching its one-year birthday and paused to catch its breath and reflect on a tumultuous first year. One of the founding directors of the nonprofit, Tom Diegel, defined the mission of WBA as “intended to give voice to wintertime backcountry enthusiasts who love the Wasatch”. WBA was brought to life as a direct result of the proposed Ski Link, intended to connect Canyons and Solitude by lift access. It was the first significant proposed expansion into the central Wasatch backcountry in many years.
Ski Link caught wintertime backcountry users unaware. Ski Link was pitched as a way of alleviating traffic congestion in Big Cottonwood Canyon but backcountry enthusiasts feared a de facto resort expansion into the remote backcountry of Big Cottonwood Canyon. The normally tranquil population of backcountry users was whipped into a powerful force of advocacy. Backcountry winter use has grown exponentially in the past decade and the growing numbers of users are concentrated in a fixed amount of terrain. Threats to that terrain are a potent motivator to action for winter backcountry users. In the end, Ski Link did not prove viable under intense scrutiny and criticism.
Several concerned backcountry enthusiasts tapped into the momentum generated by the Stop Ski Link efforts. They combined forces with the national nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance in Boise to form a nonprofit to address future plans for development of the Wasatch backcountry and also be the voice for backcountry skiers in other issues. Thus WBA was born and a strong board of directors was convened. Led by board chair Jamie Kent are several dedicated directors including Noah Howell of Powderwhore fame, Andrew McLean of adventure skiing renown, George Vargyas who spearheaded the Friends of Flagstaff organization, Mark Menlove, the executive director of the national Winter Wildlands Alliance and Jenny MacFarlane who rallied the Stop Ski Link efforts. WBA was able to quickly cement public support thanks to the popularity of the Powderwhore movie premieres, where hundreds of new members signed up.
In retrospect, the timing of WBA’s formation proved prescient. Ski Link was merely the first proposed development to challenge the balance between the resorts and the backcountry. After the defeat of the Ski Link, Mr. Diegel concedes “we knew that the seven major local ski resorts weren’t going to lay dormant for long, and sure enough the “One Wasatch” concept was rolled out midwinter.” According to Salt Lake Tribune, One Wasatch “does away with the proposed Ski Link hookup between Solitude and Canyons Resort”. One Wasatch seeks to expand on the Ski Link concept, proposing instead to connect the Wasatch back (Park City, Canyons and Deer Valley) with the resorts in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons with several new lifts. The connectivity between the resorts would be unique in North America, resembling resorts found in the Alps more than Colorado or California. The WBA was immediately sought out by the media for comment and was invited to participate in Ski Utah’s media/official One Wasatch Interconnect tour.
Despite its relative youth, WBA was officially recognized as the voice of winter backcountry users when it was invited to participate in the Mountain Accord process. Mountain Accord will ultimately dictate use of the central Wasatch into the foreseeable future. The Accord includes members of state and federal officials, local cities, municipalities, ski resorts, and nonprofits. WBA has members on each of the Accord’s subcommittees: Recreation, Transportation, Economic, and Environment.
As participants in the Mountain Accord process, WBA has provided maps of the viable (and threatened) Wasatch ski terrain and land ownership that will lay the groundwork for Mountain Accord policies/decisions, prepared a forward-thinking transportation plan for the Mountain Accord, and give an unprecedented presentation to the Mountain Accord’s Recreation and Economic committees to provide members with an overview of backcountry skiing and its importance to the central Wasatch mountains.
Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has also participated in ongoing negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners in Cardiff Fork to provide access, create awareness of private land issues and alleviate snow machine/human powered backcountry conflicts in that area. They have also worked with the University of Utah to create a comprehensive online survey that many people took in the spring of 2014, helping to generate a profile of wintertime Wasatch backcountry use patterns that will be used in the Mountain Accord process. The online survey combined with collected trailhead user data yield actual recreationist use, thereby clarifying misconceptions held by many stakeholders.
Mr. Diegel spoke at length about the future of WBA. “When we formed (WBA) we did not know of the imminent Mountain Accord process nor were we aware of Ski Utah’s audacious Wasatch One interconnect proposal, so the timing was fortuitous. But while Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is proud of what has been accomplished in a relatively short time, we aren’t fooling ourselves – the Wasatch backcountry is threatened on multiple fronts and we are very concerned about the future of the terrain we all cherish. There are a lot of entities and individuals who not only see the Central Wasatch as a very developable resource but also have the money and power to execute.”
More information on WBA can be found at www.wasatchbackcountryalliance.org
Ron is the Treasurer for the WBA. Thirty years of backcountry skiing in the Wasatch has shown him it is the greatest urban backcountry anywhere and well worth fighting for.