New fight over Alta board ban raises old issues in Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

A fight over the snowboarding ban at Alta ski area in Utah resembles the battle waged over boards on Aspen Mountain 13 years ago.

Four snowboarders and Wasatch Equality, a nonprofit group advocating for access to public lands, filed a lawsuit against Alta on Wednesday to try to free its slopes for snowboarders. Alta is one of only three ski areas in the U.S. that still ban snowboarding. Deer Valley, Utah; and Mad River Glen, Vt., are the other two.

Taos ski area in New Mexico opened its slopes to snowboarders in 2008. Aspen Skiing Co. relented on April 1, 2001. They were the only other holdouts.

The Utah lawsuit alleged that Alta is the only remaining holdout that operates primarily on public land leased from the U.S. Forest Service.

“The posturing by the U.S. Forest Service might have pushed us off a year.”
John Norton, former Skico executive

“Alta operates under a U.S. Forest Service Special Use Permit, which states: ‘the lands and waters covered by this permit shall remain open to the public for all lawful purposes,’” Wasatch Equality said on its website.

Opponents of the ban at Aspen Mountain made similar claims, recalled John Norton, Aspen Skiing Co.’s second-in-command at the time the ban was lifted. Norton is now a consultant in Crested Butte and remains tied to the ski industry.

Snowboarding advocates mounted a fierce public-relations battle to try to get Skico’s policy changed. Bumper stickers saying “Free Aspen” were popular in the late 1990s.

Skico insisted it was snowboard-friendly because the slopes at Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands were open to snowboarders. But the policy was confusing with Aspen Mountain off-limits, and the ban on one ski area overshadowed the open policy on the other three ski areas.

Opponents of the ban filed a grievance with the U.S. Forest Service when Skico wouldn’t budge. Officials in the Aspen Ranger District agreed that the ban was discriminatory, and they told Skico officials they would force them to change it, Norton recalled. The Forest Service went public with its position before discussing it with Skico brass, he said, so relations were strained.

When a meeting was finally held, Skico officials insisted that the permit to operate on public land allows the ski area to prohibit uses such as snow bikes, sledding and multiple other uses on the maintained slopes.

“We said, ‘Our lease with you allows us to discriminate,’” Norton said.

The Forest Service agreed and backed off its vow to force Skico to open Aspen Mountain to snowboarding. Skico had already come to the conclusion that the ban didn’t make business sense, but it delayed opening Aspen Mountain after the dust-up with the federal agency, according to Norton.

“The posturing by the U.S. Forest Service might have pushed us off a year,” he said.

Skico finally opened Aspen Mountain on April 1, 2001, with much fanfare. Since it was the end of the season, the opening to snowboards really kicked in for the 2001-02 season.

The end of the ban proved there had been much to-do over nothing. Most skiers didn’t care, Norton said, and most snowboarders found the natural terrain of Aspen Mountain wasn’t conducive to snowboarding.

Now, sharing the slopes comes so naturally that it seems odd there was once a flap over access for snowboarders.

“I was in Aspen Mountain right before Christmas, and I saw a thousand of skiers and three or four snowboarders,” Norton said.

He said he suspects that snowboarders wouldn’t flock to Alta even if it ended the ban. Much of the terrain is steep, and there are expansive flats from the bottom of some trails to chairlifts.

“I think Deer Valley would be an awesome snowboarding mountain. It has big, wide groomers like Snowmass,” Norton said.

Alta shows no signs of lifting its ban. Its website simply states, “Alta is for skiers.”