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Fightin' for Scraps

Features
posted: 02/06/2004

"The barking backcountry skier is Bob Athey. The Wizard of the Wasatch. He's quite a wild character with a big red beard and red hair all over the place. A very good skier with a high level of avalanche savvy, he's one of the last of the wild breed. Strongly anti-establishment. And he just hates helicopters- trenches their favorite slopes, barks at them, moons them. Let's just say he'd stand out at the opera."

Utah avalanche forecaster Tom Kimbrough left that message on my voicemail in December, 1999, back when I first looked into the territorial dispute between backcountry skiers and heli-skiers in the Tri-Canyon area of the Wasatch Range, and stumbled upon the anti-heli contingent's firebrand. Now, a full three years and two months later, I'm skinning with Bob Athey up a thousand vertical feet toward a saddle on the flanks of Mount Superior, a well-traveled route across the road from Alta.

I'm here to spend the day touring and talking with Bob about his long-waged battle against the Little Cottonwood Canyon-based heli-ski outfit known as Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG) before connecting with Mike Olson, WPG's lead guide and co-owner, to get his take on the conflict-an intermittent battle that just might foreshadow a larger war to come. As populations sprawl throughout the Rocky Mountain West, public lands like these are increasingly vulnerable to recreation overload. Colorado, which had fewer than three million residents in 1980, will see a population of 6.4 million by 2025. And Forest Service officials there are already pulling their hair out in places like the White River National Forest, where recreation use has doubled in two decades; even once-remote areas like Wolf Creek Pass are now seeing conflicts between snowmobilers and skiers. And it's not just Colorado and Utah that are growing; the population influx can be tracked from Santa Fe to Alberta, with historically desolate regions now booming. Idaho, of all places, took in more than 200,000 newcomers between 1995 and 2000. In Utah, which grew by 30 percent during the last census period, 1.8 million out of the state's 2.4 million residents live along the Wasatch Front.

Everyone is heading to the hills, and everyone is bringing toys: Snowmobile registrations in Colorado have more than doubled since 1990. Heli and snowcat operations are booked to capacity. And backcountry touring is, quite simply, going off, with manufacturers like Life-Link and Black Diamond reporting a staggering 300 percent growth. All of which is to say that, for better or for worse, the type of tension that exists between heli skiers and ski mountaineers in the Wasatch is symptomatic of what's to come. And Bob Athey and Mike Olson have been embroiled in it for years.

A somewhat mellowed rabble-rouser, Bob has shoulder-length hair that's now fading to gray, and he doesn't seem as angry as legend would have it. But in conjunction with unblinking blue eyes turned a milky white from too much sun, the effect is indeed wizardly. Our destination is Cardiff Fork, the epicenter of what Bob refers to as Utah's "urban forest." If the Wasatch's territorial dispute could be compared to the crisis in the Middle East, Cardiff Canyon would be the Gaza Strip.

Well, that would be the case if you believed the rhetoric. As it is, we-a couple of Bob's friends and I-track him down a 40-degree sneak filled with unblemished, knee-deep, cold powder before coming to a stop midway down the bowl. Besides our group, there are 14 backcountry skiers out yo-yoing. Below us to the east, some snowmobilers have cut a slope to ribbons, but the machines are gone, and other than a chilled wind whistling in our ears, the drainage is completely silent-for a moment. While we reattach skins for a jaunt up Superior, a WPG helicopter crests the ridge to the southwest. The valley reverberates.

Wasatch powderbird guides was founded in 1973, when only a handful of backcountry skiers on rudimentary gear worked the Tri-Canns. Most people stuck to the resorts, where, in '73, you could still make first tracks several days after a storm. With a special-use permit issued by the Forest Service and the best powder in North America, the heli business thrived-insofar as a weather-dependent, high-overhead business could.

While WPG grew steadily, the resort business expanded dramatically. By the '80s, Alta had grown to include Point Supreme, Solitude had moved into Honeycomb Canyon, and Brighton had incorporated Snake Creek. The loss of prime backcountry was felt by WPG and a wave of freeheelers riding the telemark rebirth. Still, the sting wasn't too severe: The easily accessible real estate held enough powder to go around. Occasionally a backcountry skier would stand on a ridge and try to keep a bird from touching down. After 15 years of flying in the Wasatch, Greg Smith, the founder of WPG, just shrugged it off. "When the water is low," he'd say, "the fish rub fins."

What Smith didn't realize at the time was just how low the water was about to get. When a heli would appear and drop a load of skiers 50 feet away, tourers responded by mooning WPG's clients and yelling obscenities. A heli pilot named Chuck Krause sometimes silenced them by hovering over mooners, letting his prop-wash pack their orifices with snow. Resorting to guerilla tactics of their own, tourers dug trenches across slopes in hopes that vacationing heli-skiers would tumble into them. They laid out Heli Free Wasatch banners on ridges and placed felled saplings straight up in landing zones. They got right in the faces of heli-skiers, spewing language that invariably referred to one's mother and the sex act. As incensed guides in heavy alpine gear gave chase, tourers just skinned a few yards uphill and kept on cursing.

When the Utah-based environmental group Save Our Canyons (SOC) issued an edict urging supporters to run around beneath choppers in a spastic display of non-violent protest, WPG took the legal high ground. Blocking LZs constitutes a federal offense under FAA guidelines, so guides made it known they'd begin making citizen's arrests.Meanwhile, the district Forest Service office was taking in a record number of helicopter-related complaints. The growing din of opposition built to a crescendo just as WPG's special-use permit came up for its five-year renewal in 1997. A frazzled Forest Service demanded that a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement be prepared, public hearings were held, and it became clear that serious restrictions would be put on WPG. The cantankerous Smith would have none of it. "Why is it that backcountry skiers feel their form of recreation is more righteous?" he posited at a hearing. "There really is a case to be made that they should be put on permits."

If Smith's jet-fuel invective weren't enough to set the anti-heli crowd ablaze, a few months later Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor Bernie Weingardt threw the match by granting WPG a one-year extension before the environmental impact statement was complete. The talk got nasty. The mercury rose. In '98, finally feeling the heat, Weingardt loaded the permit with restrictions. (Smith, who had grounded his operation for the first half of the 1998-99 season in protest, would retire within two winters.)

It was as if the Wasatch had let out a sigh of relief. Under the new restrictions, Sundays and Mondays became heli-free days. The job of abiding by the renewed five-year permit fell on the less controversial guides who'd bought the business from Smith. Conflicts tapered off. Shouting matches turned into conversations. And while the odd mooning still occurred, the banners were largely put away.

But by 2003, WPG had put a new proposal on the table. Simultaneously, SOC was pushing to have all the terrain designated as Wilderness-off-limits to all mechanized use. A fresh wave of ski area expansions had just been completed, and sales of alpine touring gear were skyrocketing. The Wasatch seemed destined for another flare-up.

Bob athey is a wiry five-ten. he's 51 years old, but his age only shows in his face and leathered hands; otherwise, he's as lean and fit as any 30-year-old ski mountaineer. Raised in a Mormon home in rural Salt Lake City, Bob received a degree in sociology from the University of Utah in 1981. In summer he installs aluminum siding, carrying his tools in a full-size Ford pickup. In winter, he skis the Wasatch. Since the mid '80s, he's logged between 120 and 150 days a year (100 days a year for a decade prior to that). On a typical day, Bob descends 6,000 feet; on a good day, 8,000 feet; and once or twice a year, he'll knock off 10,000. As he tours, he gauges the snowpack, inspects slides, and notes wind-loaded areas and slab snow. Each night he relays his findings to the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, which pays him a small fee.

In the mountains, Bob breaks trail maintaining a steady grind, pausing only to redirect the track so it follows an old slough, or to refuel with a shot of energy gel, or to answer questions about helicopters-the latter being the only thing that really winds him.

"I've paid a heavy price," Bob says wearily. "I've had encounters with the heli-skiers for more than 25 years. It affects my behavior like Pavlov's dog." When I ask him about those early encounters, he locks his gaze on me and describes a day when WPG dropped seven loads of skiers above him as he skinned up a drainage. "'If you don't like it, Bob,' they told me, 'we'll drop seven more on you.'" Or maybe it was when he was learning to telemark and crashed in front of some guides: "They were yelling at me, 'Get out of here! You're ruining the slope!'" Or the day Greg Smith laid into him: "'If you'd cut your hair and learn how to tie your shoes, Bob, I'd hire you on as a guide.'" But nothing tops the events that took place in the Alta backcountry on December 5, 1990, a day that shall live in infamy-for Bob, anyway-as Florsheim Shoe Day.

"We were in Grizzly Gulch. There were five of us. But there were other groups, and that was the problem. There was a high avalanche hazard, so we were sticking with mellow runs-and I'm sure the helicopter was doing the same thing. When they landed the heli, everyone broke a different track, marking up the slope. This one guy in another group of tourers started screaming at them, calling them motherf---ers. He had this high screechy voice: 'Motherf---ers! Motherf---ers!'

"The heli flew down and came back with a Forest Service officer. I was hiding in a group of trees, but somehow they rounded us all up, except for the guy who was screaming-he got away. When the heli landed, the forest marshal stepped out wearing a suit, and-I remember this distinctly because I was staring right at 'em-Florsheim shoes. He plunged up to his knees. He started to go hypothermic, and we had to load him up and get him out of there."

As Bob recounts these incidents, his mood visibly swings from anger to fiercely controlled mirth. Seeing that the absurdity of the conflict isn't lost on the man-much of his identity is, in fact, willfully wrapped in it-I press a little harder. Would he like to see much of the undeveloped lands left in the Tri-Canyons designated Wilderness, forcing out the helicopter forever, as SOC was pressing for? No. Because Bob, like most backcountry skiers, is also a mountain biker, and mountain bikes aren't allowed in Wilderness. Then, as if throwing out a lowball bid, he tells me he'd be happy if WPG were restricted to 20 operating days in the Tri-Canyons.

And if the Forest Service grants WPG Sunday and Monday flights again? The light drains from Bob's eyes. "They're going to start a war. People will be carrying guns."

When I finally meet Mike Olson (who goes by ole, pronounced "oh-lee"), there's a fresh eight inches at Alta, and he's shoveling the walk at WPG's base just above Snowbird. Pissant fog rollers keep working their way up-slope, making flying dangeroused destined for another flare-up.

Bob athey is a wiry five-ten. he's 51 years old, but his age only shows in his face and leathered hands; otherwise, he's as lean and fit as any 30-year-old ski mountaineer. Raised in a Mormon home in rural Salt Lake City, Bob received a degree in sociology from the University of Utah in 1981. In summer he installs aluminum siding, carrying his tools in a full-size Ford pickup. In winter, he skis the Wasatch. Since the mid '80s, he's logged between 120 and 150 days a year (100 days a year for a decade prior to that). On a typical day, Bob descends 6,000 feet; on a good day, 8,000 feet; and once or twice a year, he'll knock off 10,000. As he tours, he gauges the snowpack, inspects slides, and notes wind-loaded areas and slab snow. Each night he relays his findings to the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, which pays him a small fee.

In the mountains, Bob breaks trail maintaining a steady grind, pausing only to redirect the track so it follows an old slough, or to refuel with a shot of energy gel, or to answer questions about helicopters-the latter being the only thing that really winds him.

"I've paid a heavy price," Bob says wearily. "I've had encounters with the heli-skiers for more than 25 years. It affects my behavior like Pavlov's dog." When I ask him about those early encounters, he locks his gaze on me and describes a day when WPG dropped seven loads of skiers above him as he skinned up a drainage. "'If you don't like it, Bob,' they told me, 'we'll drop seven more on you.'" Or maybe it was when he was learning to telemark and crashed in front of some guides: "They were yelling at me, 'Get out of here! You're ruining the slope!'" Or the day Greg Smith laid into him: "'If you'd cut your hair and learn how to tie your shoes, Bob, I'd hire you on as a guide.'" But nothing tops the events that took place in the Alta backcountry on December 5, 1990, a day that shall live in infamy-for Bob, anyway-as Florsheim Shoe Day.

"We were in Grizzly Gulch. There were five of us. But there were other groups, and that was the problem. There was a high avalanche hazard, so we were sticking with mellow runs-and I'm sure the helicopter was doing the same thing. When they landed the heli, everyone broke a different track, marking up the slope. This one guy in another group of tourers started screaming at them, calling them motherf---ers. He had this high screechy voice: 'Motherf---ers! Motherf---ers!'

"The heli flew down and came back with a Forest Service officer. I was hiding in a group of trees, but somehow they rounded us all up, except for the guy who was screaming-he got away. When the heli landed, the forest marshal stepped out wearing a suit, and-I remember this distinctly because I was staring right at 'em-Florsheim shoes. He plunged up to his knees. He started to go hypothermic, and we had to load him up and get him out of there."

As Bob recounts these incidents, his mood visibly swings from anger to fiercely controlled mirth. Seeing that the absurdity of the conflict isn't lost on the man-much of his identity is, in fact, willfully wrapped in it-I press a little harder. Would he like to see much of the undeveloped lands left in the Tri-Canyons designated Wilderness, forcing out the helicopter forever, as SOC was pressing for? No. Because Bob, like most backcountry skiers, is also a mountain biker, and mountain bikes aren't allowed in Wilderness. Then, as if throwing out a lowball bid, he tells me he'd be happy if WPG were restricted to 20 operating days in the Tri-Canyons.

And if the Forest Service grants WPG Sunday and Monday flights again? The light drains from Bob's eyes. "They're going to start a war. People will be carrying guns."

When I finally meet Mike Olson (who goes by ole, pronounced "oh-lee"), there's a fresh eight inches at Alta, and he's shoveling the walk at WPG's base just above Snowbird. Pissant fog rollers keep working their way up-slope, making flying dangerous. The one time it looks like we'll get out, the bird gets called to evacuate a skier who's somehow survived a full burial. Ole and I are relegated to riding the lifts.

Ole is five-eight and built like a climber. His hair is neither short nor long. He's personable, with earnest eyes, an open smile, and the morphine-calm speech of a veteran patroller. While growing up in Montana, and later Washington State, Ole visited a friend at the University of Utah in '77 and caught a powder day at Alta. Two weeks later he found work as a valet in Salt Lake. The next season he was flipping burgers. By his fourth winter he was a full-time patroller-a job he worked for six years before heading home to Seattle to give college a try. It didn't take. "I was surrounded by nightmares," he says. "I left my pen and textbooks and never looked back." In 1985 Ole took the general manager position at WPG.

I'd hoped to get Bob and Ole out skiing together so I could record the exchange, but that plan was scrapped when I learned that the two had once nearly come to blows. When I mention Bob's name, Ole's reassuring monotone spikes, and I'm talking to the self-described hotheaded Swede from Montana. "You're going to hear a lot of rhetoric from people like Bob Athey-who is poisoned against us," he says. "It's all bullshit. We never wanted to back down, and neither did they. I don't hate Bob. I have a lot of respect for Bob. Will we ever hang out together? No."

Whereas Bob likes to recount Florsheim Shoe Day, Ole often recalls how Bob once stood up in a public hearing and yelled, "You know, Ole, if you just learned to hike, you'd understand our perspective." As Ole points out, at the time he was 20 pounds light and his lips were covered in blisters from a Himalayan expedition. Ole still finds this amusing.

"I've been here for 25 years," he says. "And I've almost always been polite. I'll ski over and eat humble pie, let them yell at me. What I hope the public understands is that when the weather is bad, we need some of our landings for safety and visibility. We do care about the people."

But, despite the inroads he's made, Ole is willing to jeopardize community good will for Sunday and Monday flights and a couple of extra days on either end of the season. "Hard rules are tough on a dynamic business," he says. "We only get 50 to 60 percent of our days in because of weather."

I tell Ole that the anti-heli tourers I've met are delighted to ski heli terrain before WPG can get there-that they relish the role of gadfly. Then I ask him if he and the rest of the guides see any humor in the conflict. "No, we don't," he states flatly. "It's our livelihood. If you keep nicking someone, eventually they'll bleed to death. Funny thing is, I think a lot of the guys would take the job if I offered it to them, but then they couldn't go to parties and bitch. We offered Bob Athey a heli ride one day and he wouldn't take it. It was a 10 of a day, too. He missed out."

On my second day of touring with bob, we avoid the helicopters, skinning from a trailhead in Little Cottonwood and eventually breaking from the trees beneath a shoulder of Red Baldy. Besides us, the drainage is deserted. As we kick turns up a series of switchbacks, the spacing between us lengthens until I'm alone with the rhythm of my breath.

I came to the Wasatch intrigued by the characters behind the heli-tourer debate. But I was fairly ambivalent about the direct underpinnings of the dispute. As a backcountry skier I know that the silence and solitude of wilderness is essential to the experience, and that when a chopper crests a ridge above you, the spell is broken. But the truth is, I was practically salivating to get up in a bird: There's not much that compares to going fast in deep powder on fat alpine gear. It's also tough to remain indignant about the choppers for long. Other than the noise-which can be deafening-helicopters are a low-impact way to deliver skiers to the tops of mountains. As wwith the larger issue of who gets to recreate on public lands and in what manner, the issue tends to evoke ambivalence and guilt. Do we shut down the lifts and the helis and only let the physically fit and highly skilled enjoy mountains in winter? Do we connect every peak with trams and snowcats? Or do we find some balance?

Gaining the ridge, we wend our way to the summit. There's no wind. A few thin clouds paint the sky. The peaks are loaded with untracked lines. Beyond that first jumble of mountains, though, there's only sage-dotted low country and a brown layer of smog over Salt Lake. It reminds me how precious Wasatch powder is. "Utah's slogan is The Greatest Snow on Earth," Bob told me earlier, "but the greatest snow on earth isn't spread out all over Utah-it falls on a little chunk of terrain above Big and Little Cottonwood."

The term "urban forest" is spot-on. If the backcountry boom continues-and Salt Lake grows into its highway system-in 20 years the Wasatch will be as busy as a city park. Outside of the skiing and climbing communities, Utah is an ultraconservative state with a long record of supporting business over wilderness. Most legislators wouldn't question Ole when he says that WPG can't sustain any more nicks. Although WPG founder Smith's notion of regulating backcountry skiers may have seemed preposterous at the time, we are talking about the Forest Service-a government agency that has cut 440,000 miles of roads into the land it was created to protect. Now its unstated mission is to expand commercial recreation. Combine that with the environmental rollbacks of the current administration, and it's easy to envision a world where tourers have to buy a backcountry ski pass-and can't ski at all two days a week. If that scenario seems farfetched, talk to mountain bikers in Northern California.

Six months after my visit, the new forest plan was released: To SOC's dismay, this slice of disputed terrain wasn't designated Wilderness. By press time, the Forest Service still hadn't decided what to do with WPG's proposal (an environmental impact survey was expected by January). And Bob and Ole, two guys who would probably get along fine if the Wasatch was three times bigger and half as crowded, were getting ready for another season of fighting over the greatest snow on earth.he one time it looks like we'll get out, the bird gets called to evacuate a skier who's somehow survived a full burial. Ole and I are relegated to riding the lifts.

Ole is five-eight and built like a climber. His hair is neither short nor long. He's personable, with earnest eyes, an open smile, and the morphine-calm speech of a veteran patroller. While growing up in Montana, and later Washington State, Ole visited a friend at the University of Utah in '77 and caught a powder day at Alta. Two weeks later he found work as a valet in Salt Lake. The next season he was flipping burgers. By his fourth winter he was a full-time patroller-a job he worked for six years before heading home to Seattle to give college a try. It didn't take. "I was surrounded by nightmares," he says. "I left my pen and textbooks and never looked back." In 1985 Ole took the general manager position at WPG.

I'd hoped to get Bob and Ole out skiing together so I could record the exchange, but that plan was scrapped when I learned that the two had once nearly come to blows. When I mention Bob's name, Ole's reassuring monotone spikes, and I'm talking to the self-described hotheaded Swede from Montana. "You're going to hear a lot of rhetoric from people like Bob Athey-who is poisoned against us," he says. "It's all bullshit. We never wanted to back down, and neither did they. I don't hate Bob. I have a lot of respect for Bob. Will we ever hang out together? No."

Whereas Bob likes to recount Florsheim Shoe Day, Ole often recalls how Bob once stood up in a public hearing and yelled, "You know, Ole, if you just learned to hike, you'd understand our perspective." As Ole points out, at the time he was 20 pounds light and his lips were covered in blisters from a Himalayan expedition. Ole still finds this amusing.

"I've been here for 25 years," he says. "And I've almost always been polite. I'll ski over and eat humble pie, let them yell at me. What I hope the public understands is that when the weather is bad, we need some of our landings for safety and visibility. We do care about the people."

But, despite the inroads he's made, Ole is willing to jeopardize community good will for Sunday and Monday flights and a couple of extra days on either end of the season. "Hard rules are tough on a dynamic business," he says. "We only get 50 to 60 percent of our days in because of weather."

I tell Ole that the anti-heli tourers I've met are delighted to ski heli terrain before WPG can get there-that they relish the role of gadfly. Then I ask him if he and the rest of the guides see any humor in the conflict. "No, we don't," he states flatly. "It's our livelihood. If you keep nicking someone, eventually they'll bleed to death. Funny thing is, I think a lot of the guys would take the job if I offered it to them, but then they couldn't go to parties and bitch. We offered Bob Athey a heli ride one day and he wouldn't take it. It was a 10 of a day, too. He missed out."

On my second day of touring with bob, we avoid the helicopters, skinning from a trailhead in Little Cottonwood and eventually breaking from the trees beneath a shoulder of Red Baldy. Besides us, the drainage is deserted. As we kick turns up a series of switchbacks, the spacing between us lengthens until I'm alone with the rhythm of my breath.

I came to the Wasatch intrigued by the characters behind the heli-tourer debate. But I was fairly ambivalent about the direct underpinnings of the dispute. As a backcountry skier I know that the silence and solitude of wilderness is essential to the experience, and that when a chopper crests a ridge above you, the spell is broken. But the truth is, I was practically salivating to get up in a bird: There's not much that compares to going fast in deep powder on fat alpine gear. It's also tough to remain indignant about the choppers for long. Other than the noise-which can be deafening-helicopters are a low-impact way to deliver skiers to the tops of mountains. As with the larger issue of who gets to recreate on public lands and in what manner, the issue tends to evoke ambivalence and guilt. Do we shut down the lifts and the helis and only let the physically fit and highly skilled enjoy mountains in winter? Do we connect every peak with trams and snowcats? Or do we find some balance?

Gaining the ridge, we wend our way to the summit. There's no wind. A few thin clouds paint the sky. The peaks are loaded with untracked lines. Beyond that first jumble of mountains, though, there's only sage-dotted low country and a brown layer of smog over Salt Lake. It reminds me how precious Wasatch powder is. "Utah's slogan is The Greatest Snow on Earth," Bob told me earlier, "but the greatest snow on earth isn't spread out all over Utah-it falls on a little chunk of terrain above Big and Little Cottonwood."

The term "urban forest" is spot-on. If the backcountry boom continues-and Salt Lake grows into its highway system-in 20 years the Wasatch will be as busy as a city park. Outside of the skiing and climbing communities, Utah is an ultraconservative state with a long record of supporting business over wilderness. Most legislators wouldn't question Ole when he says that WPG can't sustain any more nicks. Although WPG founder Smith's notion of regulating backcountry skiers may have seemed preposterous at the time, we are talking about the Forest Service-a government agency that has cut 440,000 miles of roads into the land it was created to protect. Now its unstated mission is to expand commercial recreation. Combine that with the environmental rollbacks of the current administration, and it's easy to envision a world where tourers have to buy a backcountry ski pass-and can't ski at all two days a week. If that scenario seems farfetched, talk to mountain bikers in Northern California.

Six months after my visit, the new forest plan was released: To SOC's dismay, this slice of disputed terrain wasn't designated Wilderness. By press time, the Forest Service still hadn't decided what to do with WPG's proposal (an environmental impact survey was expected by January). And Bob and Ole, two guys who would probably get along fine if the Wasatch was three times bigger and half as crowded, were getting ready for another season of fighting over the greatest snow on earth.ns. As with the larger issue of who gets to recreate on public lands and in what manner, the issue tends to evoke ambivalence and guilt. Do we shut down the lifts and the helis and only let the physically fit and highly skilled enjoy mountains in winter? Do we connect every peak with trams and snowcats? Or do we find some balance?

Gaining the ridge, we wend our way to the summit. There's no wind. A few thin clouds paint the sky. The peaks are loaded with untracked lines. Beyond that first jumble of mountains, though, there's only sage-dotted low country and a brown layer of smog over Salt Lake. It reminds me how precious Wasatch powder is. "Utah's slogan is The Greatest Snow on Earth," Bob told me earlier, "but the greatest snow on earth isn't spread out all over Utah-it falls on a little chunk of terrain above Big and Little Cottonwood."

The term "urban forest" is spot-on. If the backcountry boom continues-and Salt Lake grows into its highway system-in 20 years the Wasatch will be as busy as a city park. Outside of the skiing and climbing communities, Utah is an ultraconservative state with a long record of supporting business over wilderness. Most legislators wouldn't question Ole when he says that WPG can't sustain any more nicks. Although WPG founder Smith's notion of regulating backcountry skiers may have seemed preposterous at the time, we are talking about the Forest Service-a government agency that has cut 440,000 miles of roads into the land it was created to protect. Now its unstated mission is to expand commercial recreation. Combine that with the environmental rollbacks of the current administration, and it's easy to envision a world where tourers have to buy a backcountry ski pass-and can't ski at all two days a week. If that scenario seems farfetched, talk to mountain bikers in Northern California.

Six months after my visit, the new forest plan was released: To SOC's dismay, this slice of disputed terrain wasn't designated Wilderness. By press time, the Forest Service still hadn't decided what to do with WPG's proposal (an environmental impact survey was expected by January). And Bob and Ole, two guys who would probably get along fine if the Wasatch was three times bigger and half as crowded, were getting ready for another season of fighting over the greatest snow on earth.

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