Speaking Up for the Backcountry in Washington, D.C.
By Tom Diegel, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance Board Member
This past week the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance was asked – along with the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance – to go out to Washington, D.C. to by the Outdoor Alliance to lobby Utah’s congressional delegation for renewing something called the Land Water Conservation Fund, which – though not well-known, has been an important part of the American conservation and recreation funding for the past 50 years. It’s a very reasonable program that generally has enjoyed bipartisan support: royalties from oil/gas companies’ offshore extractions is put into a fund that enables purchases and upgrades to parcels of land that need them, either for preservation, recreation, or even to help ranchers/farmers avoid the financial realities of dangling development dollars for their land and maintain their lifestyle. So while it flies in the face of Utah’s leadership’s unlikely quest to take over all non-national park public lands, it is not taxpayer-funded and many times provides opportunities to fill in smallish, logical gaps of land that need help.
What does that have to do with backcountry skiing? Truthfully, not much; it’s unlikely that LWCF funds are going to create more parking spaces at the Butler trailhead for dawn patrollers (but that’s the type of thing that the LWCF does indeed fund). But we used the opportunity of a “sponsored” trip -along with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance – to D.C. to make sure that the delegation knows about Mountain Accord and that our sometimes-tenuous faith in the Mountain Accord process – and our willingness to cede some limited b/c acreage and ski resort base area development – lies in the potential for permanent protection of our backcountry ski terrain – locking in ski resort and development boundaries – via federal legislation.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz has apparently tentatively agreed to sponsor this legislation when it is presented to him, and right now there is a Mountain Accord committee working on what the designation will be. Even though a Wasatch National Monument – originally proposed by Save Our Canyons – is probably the “best” designation for the combination of wilderness, non-wilderness open land, and development that constitutes the Central Wasatch, and a national monument can be designated by Congress in addition to more-common executive order, the Utah contingent hates Obama’s (and Clinton’s) national monuments so much that they are loathe to have anything to do with national monuments, so it needs to be something else. Currently it is looking like it could be a “National Conservation Area,” though Nathan Rafferty of Ski Utah – and a member of the Mountain Accord Executive Committee – went on a tirade last week that it had to be a NationalRecreation Area, which -though it runs counter to the preservation priority that the public indicated in last spring’s MA long comment period, is more development friendly and may be an attempt to keep his chairlift-based One Wasatch idea on life support, despite no wording to that effect in the Accord itself.
We were able to meet with a member of Chaffetz’s team who assured us that he was well-aware of the LWCF and the Mountain Accord and indeed was hopeful he could introduce legislation on the latter. We met with Representative Chris Stewart’s chief policy advisor who assured us that Mr Stewart was also acutely aware of and cautiously supportive of both programs. While we made it clear that we are not very happy with the concessions we had to make in order to support the Accord, few others were as well and the permanence associated with the legislation was the reason for our cautious support.
We were unable to meet with Representative Rob Bishop’s team: Bishop is critical for Utah recreators because he chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. We will work on following up with his Utah office.
Last year Wasatch Backcountry Alliance president Jamie Kent and board member Andrew McLean were in Washington for a similar advocacy trip, and its clear that their efficacy and enthusiasm paved the way for another invitation for the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance this year. The Utah delegation is not necessarily backcountry ski friendly, but they are (hopefully) smart enough to know that our vast membership represents plenty of votes, recognize when there are opportunities for them to look good by introducing “environmental” legislation, and that the outdoor industry and outdoor tourism represent an unusual amount of dollars flowing into the state. So we are cautiously optimistic that with consistent pressure they will be incentivized to act in our best interests.