Comment Period for FS-WPG permit renewal

6 minutes


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Hello Wasatch Backcountry Enthusiasts!

Wasatch Backcountry Alliance met with the Forest Service leadership recently to express some concerns about the process, and as a result the Forest Service has opened a 30 day comment period from June 10-July 10. It is vital that they hear from the public with your opinions on WPG’s operations.

A bit of history: WPG has been in operation since 1973 and have had a special use permit from the Forest Service (FS) the entire time. The last time that the permit saw any revisions to it was in 2004, which was the last time the FS took any comments on the permit (and it was contentious); prior to that it was 1999. The venerable forefathers of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and Save Our Canyons made it their mission to work with both WPG and the FS to create some reasonable limitations on WPG’s operations in the tri-canyon areas of Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, and Mill Creek canyons, and it was their idea and their pressure exerted on WPG and the FS that resulted in the Sunday/Monday exclusion for the Central Wasatch.

Until 2009 the WPG permit was re-evaluated by the FS every 5 years. In 2009 WPG requested and the FS granted a 10 year extension, so the existing permit will expire in May 2019. WPG has asked the FS to do an early review and are hoping for an equally early renewal of the permit for another ten-year period, so the next permit period will extend until 2029. This means that if the FS reissues the existing permit, WPG will be operating under the same conditions for the 25-year span from 2004 to 2029, despite the fact the Wasatch has experienced a dramatic increase in human powered winter recreation over that time.

Here are some quick details on WPG’s operations:
• Their season is from Dec 15 to Apr 15.
• They are allowed 5 extra days outside of that period (non-commercial only prior to Dec 15)
• WPG is not allowed to fly in the Tri-Canyon area on Sundays and Mondays (they fly in the Session Mountains north of SLC, and in the Cascade Ridge area south of Provo Canyon), but there are exceptions to the Sunday/Monday rule:
– WPG can do “home runs” in LCC in the White Pine drainage and on Patsy Marley (above Alta)
– They have three “earned” Monday fly exception days
• WPG is allowed to have two ships in the Tri-Canyons 5 days/year.
• They have 1600 skier days total, with 800 of those days in the Tri Canyons, and 650 in the Northern Powder Circuit (Mineral/Cardiff/Days/Silver Forks)
• They are allowed to drop 300 bombs/year in the backcountry, and try to do so as much as possible before 9am.

Part of the WPG permit requires them to report on how many human powered folks they see out in the backcountry. In their 2012/13 year-end report, WPG reported seeing a total of 270 people over the entire season. Just two years later, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s trail-counting project revealed that the average trailhead counts at just seven popular trailheads in the 2014-2015 season was almost 350 users per day. In that time period the Utah Avalanche Center’s annual contacts have gone from 200,000 to 1.6 million, and the Snowsports Industries of America reports that there has been annual double-digit growth in backcountry equipment even as resort skiing and snowboarding equipment sales have stayed flat. WBA thinks it is critical that this kind of growth be taken into consideration before the FS simply re-issues the WPG permit. WPG and the Forest Service are assuming that since there are no requested changes to the special use permit that nothing else has changed, but it’s clear that – using the FS’s own terminology – there has been a significant “change in condition” that warrants a critical look at the permit and potential changes to the permit to limit the impact on the dramatically-increased number of human powered backcountry users.

What can you do? Send in your comments! Here are some potential points to make:
• In the 13 year span from 2004 to 2017, backcountry skiing, riding, snowshoeing, fat biking, etc in the Central Wasatch has/will increase dramatically, and there is a much higher likelihood now of increased human-powered/heli-powered conflicts.
• Further limits to their operations in the Central Wasatch – via one less day/week, fewer “home runs” in LCC, less/no days of running two ships, no “earned” days, no extra days outside the permit season (all pushing them out to more remote areas) – are all viable for WPG; implementation of any of these simply affects the WPG business model.
• Yet these exceptions have a dramatic effect on the limited resource of backcountry snow, create considerable noise and big decreases in the value of the “backcountry experience”, and increase opportunities for conflict.
• The ability to drop 300 bombs per year in the morning hours in a heavily populated area is potentially dangerous to backcountry skiers
• Should the permit be renewed on a 5 or 10 year period?
• How has helicopter use affected you?
• Have they ever skied down on top of you while you were ascending, or landed on top of a ridge that you were ascending?
• How have your experiences been with guides/clients?
• Would you like a public meeting (or meetings) for you and/or your community to voice your opinions in person?

Keep in mind that helicopter skiing will continue to be part of the backcountry experience in the Wasatch. Therefore, submitting rants to the effect of “helicopters have NO place in the Wasatch!” or “heli skiers don’t deserve to be in the backcountry!” will likely be given less consideration than thoughtful, reasoned arguments for increased limitations to the WPG operating plan.

The overworked and potentially underfunded Forest Service does not have a strong sense of what it’s like out in the backcountry and they are incentivized to do a simple permit renewal with no changes. Therefore it is vital that the Forest Service hears from you and your friends on this issue before July 10. They are using an email address for you to send in your comments:

Wasatch Backcountry Alliance feels that this is one of the most important and potentially impactful issues regarding the protection of human-powered recreation in the Central Wasatch, and your comment can make a real difference in the future of our backcountry. Even if you don’t generally get involved in any other way, please take the time to submit your comments on this issue. Thanks again for your enthusiasm and your efforts!

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