The politics of powder |

The politics of powder

Joel Stonington
Aspen Times Weekly
Area resident Sue Kloster rips a turn in McFarlane's, the steepest, most avalanche-prone area on Richmond Ridge. (Charles Agar/Aspen Times Weekly)

It’s an average day on an Aspen Skiing Co. powder tour when powder tour manager Bob Perlmutter points out a pair of snowmobilers cruising into a closed area.

The two powder poachers on sleds are oblivious to the dozen customers in the powder tours snowcat sneering through the windows, and Perlmutter is not about to turn the snowcat around to verbally berate a few law-breaking snowmobilers.

“There you can see snowmobiles go right by a bunch of signs that say, ‘No snowmobiles beyond this point,'” Perlmutter said. “That’s part of the issue.”

The Skico has the sole permit for motorized access to powder skiing on Richmond Ridge, a mixed bag of public and private land roughly twice the size of Aspen Mountain. But a lack of permits and private land leases don’t stop snowmobilers from illegally taking a few powder skiing laps.

In the Wild West of Richmond Ridge ” Aspen’s closest and most accessible backcountry skiing ” the rules don’t always make a difference. Furthermore, enforcing and managing those rules seems to be less and less of a reality.

“It’s kind of a live-and-let-live attitude up there,” said Tim Lamb, a forestry technician with the White River National Forest. “If we do something, we get complaints. If we don’t do something, we get complaints. It’s just a concentrated headache up there.”

The 1,200 acres of prime pow skiing on the backside of Aspen Mountain are stressed by the sheer number of users. And though the controversy has been ongoing for two decades, it’s likely to get worse.

Private landowners are frustrated with snowmobilers speeding over their land and breaking in cabins. Snowmobilers say the Skico is being greedy with the powder, and at least some of the snowmobilers have Libertarian leanings when it comes to private land. And Skico officials say they may have to shut down their powder tours operation if snowmobilers continue to track up their leased acres.

Plus, private landowners are selling off their land ” at somewhere around $1 million per tract ” for people to build 1,000-square-foot, off-the-grid cabins. That’s only going to make the ridge, and its access roads, more crowded.

“[Perlmutter] thinks we’re going to put him out of business,” said Billy Zuehlke, a longtime Aspenite and member of the motorized access group, Powder to the People. “I think he just needs to learn how to share.”

Zuehlke was sitting on a sled at the top of Wine Tree, one of the areas closed to motorized access by Forest Service permit with the Skico. He had special permission from the Forest Service to be there that day, but snowmobilers go there with a certain regularity without permission.

“You see how beautiful it is out here,” Zuehlke said. “You’re, like, wow ” it’s just another level that a lot of people don’t get to see. This is why they want to keep this all to themselves.”

When a few newbies to off-piste skiing let out some yells on a recent run in the backcountry behind Aspen Mountain, Mike Sladdin humorlessly told them hoots and hollers should be reserved for a dangerous situation, such as an avalanche.

Sladdin is serious about skiing and serious about the backside of Aspen Mountain, where a 600-acre chunk known as the Forest Service 7.1 intermix area is at the center of this sometimes bitter controversy.

Now, with the Forest Service proposing unfettered motorized access to public lands along Richmond Ridge in winter, the many recreational users of that land are pushing their points of view.

Sladdin, a soft-spoken, nearly two-decade veteran of Aspen who is founder and executive director of Powder to the People, seeks equal motorized use on public lands. He has brought skiing enthusiasts who use sleds for powder laps to the bargaining table with the Forest Service and the Aspen Skiing Co.

“Maybe the Skico could stomach a few skiers out here,” said Sladdin, on a recent day skiing Richmond Ridge. “When we’re out here, I don’t ski next to them.”

The Skico’s Perlmutter is also serious about skiing and serious about Richmond Ridge, where powder tours have operated as a Skico venture since 1986.

To go on a powder tour with Perlmutter is to hear him say, “My motto is: Ski powder, have fun.”

But folks on powder tours also must be ready to be reprimanded by Perlmutter if they ski too far into virgin powder and away from turns that are spooned, each one next to the other. That’s because Perlmutter’s job is to stretch every storm into three days of powder on the 1,200 acres that the Skico leases from the Forest Service.

“We are relegated to this area, period,” said Perlmutter, adding that unregulated motorized access would kill his business. “This is our sandbox. Snowmobiles have all non-wilderness within the National Forest. We have nowhere else to go.”

Officials for the White River National Forest say they get more complaints from the public about the area in contention along Richmond Ridge than any other part of the forest during the winter.

“We’ve been banging our heads on this for 20 years,” said Lamb, the forestry technician. “It’s a lot of people competing for a small area.”

The area along Richmond Ridge is a befuddling maze of private land, wilderness and forest service land with county roads snaking through the middle. Even those intimately associated with the area would have a hard time drawing an accurate map of boundaries, and the many players involved make the issue even more heated.

Managing the land has been especially difficult because numerous county roads run up to and along the ridge but are not governed by the Forest Service permit. That, in part, has led to use by both powder tours and snowmobilers.

In 1992, the Forest Service issued a special order restricting snowmobiles to designated routes, an order that was largely ignored until enforcement was stepped up a few years later.

The order also closed traditional powder runs on the east side of the ridge, such as McFarlane’s, Wine Tree and Ptarmigan, to motorized uses other than the Skico’s powder tours.

Perlmutter said the Skico pays the Forest Service about 1 percent of their gross for the permit. A single day on a powder tour costs $350 and the Skico usually takes out three snowcats with a dozen guests each. This winter, they have been able to run more than 60 days of tours.

The last few years has seen a truce of sorts between the Skico and Powder to the People, though. McFarlane’s ” the “jewel of Richmond Ridge” as Sladdin put it ” is now open to the public, but that’s as far as it goes.

“It’s a compromise that strikes a delicate balance and allows the general public to have access to some but not all terrain,” Perlmutter said. “The prime stash back here is McFarlane’s, but they want all of it.”

The truce has been working, but not perfectly. And a recent Forest Service alternative in a draft travel-management plan allowing unregulated motorized access in the area has once again fired up the debate.

It’s no secret that the Forest Service is financially strapped and patrolling areas such as Richmond Ridge is a low priority. It was bad enough at one point that the Skico pitched in for a Forest Service patrol officer until the Forest Service decided it wasn’t a good idea to take contributions from a permit holder.

“We patrol six to seven times a winter,” Lamb said. “That’s not adequate for an area like that. But it’s typical for everywhere in the district. From our perspective, we are severely lacking in enforcement districtwide. That’s probably true nationwide. This district has 700,000 plus acres and a handful of people who patrol.”

But there are signs of progress on Richmond Ridge. For example, the Skico is allowing Powder to the People snowmobile users to park their machines at the top of Aspen Mountain. In return, Powder to the People has agreed to stay on marked roads and off closed areas, such as Ptarmigan and most of the western side of the ridge. But Powder to the People has no more say over most snowmobilers than the Skico does, leaving both groups frustrated by the lack of enforcement.

“What the [Forest Service] is throwing up their hands on,” said Sladdin, “is managing the area.”

“It’s a big problem,” said John Miller, the biggest landowner on Richmond Ridge. “[Snowmobilers] go up and use our property. I put some signs up on wooden posts. Would you believe that people stopped and chopped them down? To take the energy to chop the thing in two … We put 24 steel posts up there that say ‘private property stay on the road.'”

Miller compared the problem to someone breaking into his home to sleep because he isn’t using one of the bedrooms. To him, snowmobile tracks on his land is breaking and entering. Not to mention the people who have parties on his land and trash the area.

“We get partygoers,” Miller said. “The Forest Service last year called me and asked me to lock the gates because they were having people go back there to have parties. They break bottles. I paid to have it cleaned up twice.”

Indeed, a few snowmobilers can ruin it for everyone else.

“I don’t think there’s any way the majority of those people can be controlled,” said Bill Seguin, who has spent dozens of days each year for the past two decades skinning along Richmond Ridge and skiing lines. “The lure of taking those machines into the meadows is just too great.”

Seguin is part of the under-represented side of the debate. If anyone has a lack of voice, it’s the folks who don’t use any kind of machine at all. From his point of view, all motors should be taken out of the area, but he says powder tours are the lesser of two evils.

“Powder to the People is a very attractive slogan but it’s more like powder to the machines,” Seguin said. “It’s just destructive to the peace and environment back there.”

In fact, Perlmutter has said that if it had to be absolute ” either unrestricted motorized access or none at all ” he would choose the latter because he believes the area would get trashed.

“The people are out there for the right reasons,” Lamb said. “Everyone is just trying to enjoy the outdoors. But sometimes I see snowmobile tracks and wonder what someone was thinking.”

Sladdin, too, does not want to see people cruising through the powder terrain on snowmobiles, wrecking the skiing for everyone. He would like to see the terrain along Richmond Ridge opened to snowmobiles, with certain conditions. The devil, however, is in the details.

And if the Forest Service moves forward with full access, it may be that no one gets what they want, except that small percentage who just want to go out there and zip around on snowmobiles.

Between now and when the decision is made, however, it’s time to hit the slopes.

“It’s all about the skiing,” said Perlmutter. “Us and Powder to the People will never differ on that. It’s all about the skiing.”