Photo Credit: Leave Our Lands Alone Alliance in Boise National Forest near Tamarack Ski Resort (Idaho)
By Heather Hansman
*This article was featured in our Trail Break – Fall 2021 edition
North of Duluth, up the shore of Lake Superior, a group of obsessive backcountry skiers has been brewing a plan for the Midwest’s first backcountry ski area, and a hut-to-hut ski touring route along the North Shore. Rory Scoles, the founder of Superior Highlands Backcountry, the local backcountry non-profit, says that hacking around outside in the winter is core to the culture up there. They’re working to get people excited about ski touring, and to bring people into the mountains from across the Midwest.
They’re holding the first glading parties for the hut system this fall. The centerpiece of the plan would be Moose Mountain, which holds arguably the best backcountry skiing in the Midwest, in 1,000 vertical feet of sugar maple and rolling terrain.
But the backcountry skiing on Moose Mountain, and the hut-to-hut traverse plans, are at serious risk because of an impending corporate ski area expansion into the zone.
In 2017, Lutsen Mountains Corporation, the biggest ski resort in the Midwest, which owns the eastern third of Moose Mountain, proposed an expansion into 496 acres of U.S. Forest Service land. The project, currently under environmental review, would include seven chairlifts, a “mountain-top chalet,” two new snowmaking reservoirs, and 1,260 new parking spaces. For context, they currently have 200 parking spots.
“What they’re proposing is basically quadrupling the area. It’s huge. They’re shooting for the moon,” Scoles says. “One of the many questions that arises just from the facts: are they fully utilizing the terrain they have? In my estimation they have not.”
Scoles says the expansion, which he says feels unnecessary given the current scope of the mountain, would impact all other recreation in the area. “I own the pro shop, of course I want the ski area to succeed, but not like this,” he says.
As soon as they heard Lutsen had submitted a proposal for the expansion, Superior Highland Backcountry put together their own 82-page proposal for a backcountry ski area on Moose Mountain. They’re trying to advocate for non-motorized recreation, and for open access to winter recreation on public land. “For the hut-to-hut to be viable we have to have Moose Mountain be available,” he says.
But because of how the Forest Service manages ski area permits, groups like Superior Highland Backcountry don’t have much of a voice in the process. The resort’s interest comes first. And they’re fighting to even have their idea considered. “We’ve been pushing to make our proposal one of the alternatives,” Scoles says, “But so far it’s not even being considered.”
Skiers in the scrappy mountains of northern Minnesota aren’t the only ones pushing back on ski resort expansion and trying to protect space for backcountry recreation on public land, especially as the sport grows. Winter Wildlands Alliance is currently tracking 18 different projects related to ski resort development and expansion on national forest lands. This is in part because of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011, which allowed ski resorts to offer year-round recreation, aside from just skiing and snowboarding, and which kicked off a wave of growth. According to a report by the Utah State University Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 24 resorts have expanded their operations on Forest Service land in recent years.
Resort expansions can be a way to spur more real estate development on adjacent private lands, and Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director, says the goal is often to make a resort more appealing for a sale, especially as a generation of small resort owners ages out of the business. “While we are not opposed to ski areas making infrastructure or even increasing development within their existing permit area, we do not support, nor does SAROEA require, unchecked resort expansions,’ WWA wrote in a February letter to Chris French, the then-Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the US Department of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service).
“A 4,407-acre Tamarack Resort would be the seventh largest ski resort in terms of acreage in all of North America, juxtaposed in a town with a population of 152.”
– Sean O’Brien, Leave Our Lands Alone Alliance
And so far, because of current policy and practice, that growth has largely been unchecked. At Mission Ridge, in Wenatchee, Washington, resort owner Larry Scrivanich, who also owns an adjacent 800-acre parcel of private land, is proposing a 30-acre ski terrain expansion, to connect the two pieces, and build a 4,000-bed lift-accessed development. Local backcountry skiers, organized by El Sendero Backcountry Ski and Snowshoe Club, say the development, which is slated for a low-water, high fire danger area, would, among other things, impact elk habitat, and cut into a recently- designated winter non-motorized zone.
“They sold it to the community as a ski area expansion, but really it is a resort expansion,” says Gus Bekker, President of El Sendero. “They’re proposing to develop the private land real estate at the expense of the community and the county.”
East of there, in Idaho, Tamarack Resort LLC is proposing a 3,307-acre expansion onto the Boise National Forest that would quadruple the area’s current size of 1,100 acres. Local advocates think it’s a real estate move, instead of a push for better skiing, and an unnecessary one given the skier population. “A 4,407-acre Tamarack Resort would be the seventh largest ski resort in terms of acreage in all of North America, juxtaposed in a town with a population of 152. The entire Valley County has less than 10,000 people,” says Sean O’Brien, from Leave Our Lands Alone Alliance.
Like at Lutsen, O’Brien says they don’t think the resort is using the terrain they already have available, and that the expansion is a financial play to bring in wealthy second homeowners, while cutting off access in the process. “It destroys unspoiled parts of our National Forest system and impacts backcountry users by de facto privatizing public lands; thereby excising backcountry users from any of the terrain. Even though it technically remains public land, if we were to enter the area without a Tamarack pass, they could arrest us for trespassing,” he says.
Those backcountry skiers aren’t necessarily rejecting all development; they just want to have a voice in what happens on the public lands they use and love.
But the framework that the Forest Service uses to approve new projects, and the laws that shape their decisions, come down in favor of the ski industry, and give the entity proposing the project—in most cases a resort company—power to shape the preliminary proposals and the alternatives considered in the required environmental review. Like Scoles is attempting to do at Moose Mountain, backcountry advocates are trying to offer alternatives, and give skiers and other recreators a voice. But doing so will take creative, thoughtful change within the Forest Service.
That fight is particularly clear in the Tetons, where two recent ski area expansion projects have brought this issue to the fore. Like at Lutsen, the backcountry community is struggling to have their voices heard, even when they have proposals they think would be viable alternatives, and when protecting backcountry skiing zones would have cascading impacts on wildlife, socio- local economics, and more.
In March of 2021, the Jackson Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest approved an expansion onto the south side of Snow King, the ski hill that stretches across the south rim above the town of Jackson. Local skiers say they love Snow King, they want it to thrive, but that they didn’t think this expansion, which includes a zip line and new chairlift that access terrain off the backside was valuable for skiing, or for the ecosystem. “A low elevation south facing ski area doesn’t make sense, and it’s encroaching on what was a really nice wilderness area,” says Gary Kofinas, the chairperson of the Teton Backcountry Alliance.
And, just as importantly, he says community members didn’t feel like they were included in the process, or like their voices were heard when they tried to offer alternatives. “There were lots of comments, it got lots of objections,” Kofinas says. “But because the need and purpose statement was so narrow, they didn’t consider them. In the end, they said, ‘thank you for your objections,’ and went forward.”
Because of the way the current laws and regulations govern ski area management on public lands, the entity proposing a ski area expansion has a lot of sway in the decision-making process. When Congress passed the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986, it gave the Forest Service the power to approve and regulate permits on public land. In doing so, the Forest Service must follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandates an environmental review and public comment opportunities, but there are no additional regulations guiding the process to address the specific issues and challenges associated with ski area development.
When a resort proposes an expansion or development project on National Forest land, the local District Ranger or Forest Supervisor first considers if the project is compatible with their forest plan and other governing regulations. The Forest Service will often work with the project proponent to tweak the proposal as necessary for it to be considered for approval. Once this initial screening process is complete, the Forest Service publishes a notice of intent to analyze the project, kicking off the formal environmental review process—the NEPA process—with a “scoping period” to collect public comment on the initial proposal and input on what issues should be considered in the review.
At the start of the NEPA process, the Forest Service defines the project’s “purpose and need,” which frames the whole review. It’s essentially why the proposed project should happen. That purpose and need shapes the environmental review, because according to NEPA, the review— whether it’s an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA)—must include alternatives, and these alternatives must fit within the purpose and need. In the environmental review, the Forest Service analyzes and compares the impacts of each alternative and pulls elements from the various alternatives to make a final, and presumably informed, decision.
That’s where it often breaks down.
“The way that these projects work, they’re proponent driven,” Eisen says. “The Forest Service doesn’t have money lying around to do the environmental review, so if the ski area wants to expand, they have to pay a third party contractor to do the NEPA analysis. Because the resort gets to choose, the contractor is often the same company that wrote the master development plan. In our view, they’re not impartial, and that bias affects the purpose and need statement, as well as the analysis of alternatives.”
There are comment periods, where the public can get involved, but if public concerns are deemed to be outside of the scope of the purpose and need statement (which, remember is often shaped by the same people who developed the proposal in the first place), and not included in any of the alternatives, then the Forest Service won’t consider those ideas.
Kofinas says that the Snow King NEPA review was comically narrow, and all the alternatives were slight variations of what the resort wanted, so public comments were brushed aside as being outside of the scope of the project.
He says they lost the battle on that project, but now they’re trying to change tactics and challenge the Forest Service to hold off another proposed expansion on the other side of Teton Pass. There, Grand Targhee is proposing to expand deeper onto the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, into Teton Canyon and Mill Creek, potentially doubling the number of skiers in critical wildlife habitat.
Backcountry skiers want a say and a stake but Kofinas says it’s not just about the skiing. In addition to the wildlife and skiing impacts, there will also be social and economic impacts if more resort skiers flood into Driggs and Victor, Idaho. “Teton Village is already a major destination. If we duplicate that on the west side it will dramatically change the footprint of the Yellowstone ecosystem,” Kofinas says.
Because the access road is in Idaho, but the ski area is in Wyoming, all of the benefit from tax revenue goes to Wyoming, while all the costs of waste, emergency services, traffic, employee housing and more, goes to Idaho. Local residents and politicians, including the Teton County, Idaho county commissioners are concerned because the expansion could impact much more than just skiing. So, with what they’ve learned from—and lost—at Snow King, they’re trying to pressure the Forest Service to assess a wide range of alternatives, and to look at the bigger picture benefits and impacts that can come from different ways of recreating on public land.
Teton County, Idaho is hoping Teton County, Wyoming will work with them on commissioning a socioeconomic study of the expansion, too, to show how widely the impacts might spread. Meanwhile, local activists are reaching out to as many community members as possible, and to collectively come up with options that are mutually beneficial. But it’s not easy.
Expanding ski resorts is about far more than skiing, and the battle in the Tetons is a microcosm for what’s happening in all those other ski areas. In Wenatchee, they talk about fire danger and water access. At Tamarack, O’Brien says they’re worried about housing shortages.
That’s why Winter Wildlands Alliance, and backcountry advocates across the country, feel strongly about having a voice in the expansion and permitting process. Winter Wildlands Alliance is trying to consolidate the battles and encourage the Forest Service to put more checks on its decision- making process to ensure that the broader interests of the community are taken into account: for climate impacts, wildlife habitat, and social good.
“We would like to see the Forest Service develop regulations to bring consistency to how the agency considers ski resort expansion and development projects, to ensure that these projects are considered in light of recent executive orders calling on federal agencies to take bold steps to combat the climate crisis and pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all people,” Eisen said in an email, outlining her long-term desires for a more inclusive process. She says it wouldn’t be that hard to open up the process and that it could take a range of issues into account, from meaningfully addressing climate change to building in equity.
“Ski area development can have many effects, from the immediate consequences of developing forest land to far-reaching economic impacts felt in neighboring communities, but the current way in which the Forest Service analyzes these projects fails to capture the full range of effects. In much the same way that the Travel Management Rule guides the NEPA process by outlining specific issues that must be considered when designating routes and areas for motorized use, a Resort Development Rule, or even just formal guidance from the Washington Office, could outline specific issues, and the scope of those issues, that forests must consider when analyzing resort development proposals,” she went on to say.
That’s what Scoles is trying to show at Lutsen, too. How different ways of backcountry recreating can benefit the community, the ecosystem, and the economy. He wants to think outside of the current framework of expansion to come up with other ways to manage the forest for recreation, ways that allow more community members to be involved. That’s a model that could work in a lot of places.
“My larger goal is to not play whack-a mole forever,” Eisen says. “We’re not trying to ban expansion unilaterally, just change the process so that all stakeholders can have a voice.” She, along with the skiers and riders whose backcountry zones are currently being threatened, want a way to protect the lands they love into the future.
HEATHER HANSMAN is the environmental columnist for Outside Online. She is the author of two awesome books: Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West (Chicago University Press) and the forthcoming Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow (Hanover Square Press), to be published this coming November. Catch her talking about it in your local backcountry this winter.