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Diehard powderhounds have been taking cats up on public land for decades, but as backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity, more people have caught the fever. Used rigs are available for as little as $5,000; monster-machines with plasma TVs, fridges and leather seats will set you back $250,000.

"It used to be just a few locals who skied with their buddies and bought small used snowcats, but there are more cats now and wealthier people buying them, says Jim Stark,

Winter Sports Administrator in the Aspen area for the U.S. Forest Service. His office began enforcing a long-overlooked ban on motorized vehicles behind Aspen Mountain after a wealthy Florida developer's pirate-flag-flying Bombardier prompted complaints from Aspen's commercial cat operation.

Regulations vary, but in some areas, private cats can follow routes put in by commercial outfits. "For somebody to be responsible for 100 percent of access and grooming, and then everyone else gets to use it for nothing, you might as well put us out of business, says Dave Barnes, General Manager of Steamboat Powdercats in Colorado.

After the developer got the boot from Aspen's backside, he moved his cat to a new area, where he was ticketed again. "So the guy went out and got himself a helicopter, says Aspen Mountain Manager Steve Sewell.

FEBRUARY 2006

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