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Snowmobilers and skiers reach agreement in Sun Valley

Snowmobilers knew that some closures were imminent and they were terrified of losing their favorite areas. Skiers wanted some assurance that they could enjoy a scenic, fun experience without encountering a snowmobile.

By Adena Cook

Map of Idaho

An agreement between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in the Wood River Valley made the news recently. at a press conference in Ketchum, Idaho. This historic effort by a special committee of snowmobilers and cross-country skiers aims to solve conflict between the two groups.

A challenge was made by Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere. "When I came on as Supervisor five years ago," he observed, "the biggest issue in the Forest was not grazing or logging, but was the conflict between skiers and snowmobilers in this Sun Valley area."

"No one group received everything it wanted. In the end, we all had to give a little to get a little."

Historically, there was a "gentlemen's agreement" between cross-country skiers and snowmobilers that the areas north of Prairie Creek were used by the skiers and the Baker Creek area and south were used by snowmobilers. However, five or six years ago, this informal arrangement began to erode. New people moved to the area who were unfamiliar with the agreement. Technology changed. More people were using the area for winter fun. Conflicts escalated and enjoyment declined.

To begin to address the situation, the Blaine County Recreation District in 1996 formed a Wood River Winter Recreation Coalition, a group composed of skiers and snowmobilers. While the group achieved some success in addressing small issues, they were unable to resolve the larger problem of escalating conflict in favorite areas. By 1999, it was apparent that this effort was not going to succeed.

In December 1999, Supervisor LeVere met with the group and challenged them, "Come up with a resolution, come up with a map in a year's time, or I'll do it for you." Both groups realized that the agency was unlikely to develop a plan they'd each like. Snowmobilers knew that some closures were imminent and they were terrified of losing their favorite areas. Skiers wanted some assurance that they could enjoy a scenic, fun experience without encountering a snowmobile.

They formed a Winter Recreation Mapping Group composed of five snowmobilers and five skiers. To begin their collaboration, they hired Bob Werth of Werth and Werth Mediation of Ketchum, Idaho, to assist them. They began an intense process of communicating and collaborating that was difficult but ultimately successful.

Werth worked intensively with the group to lay the groundwork for addressing the issues. Members had to learn to understand and respect the other side. They had to learn to communicate and negotiate. They also had to frame the parameters of the issue and work out a timetable.

The group agreed to keep the proceedings confidential. Forest Service personnel could attend and observe. They provided technical information as requested and took minutes for the group, but otherwise did not participate.

Last winter, the group took a field trip where each member first skied, then snowmobiled to facilitate mutual understanding. They spent time in a back country yurt talking about management details that would be addressed later. They began to discuss criteria against which aspects of a plan's details would be tested. Subsequent development of these criteria was essential to the ultimate success of the project. All of this preceded actual work with maps that would shape how allocations would be made on the ground.

There were many frustrations along the way. The group's progress was set back by an unfortunate incident

this past year when someone burned a popular yurt near the headquarters of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Skiers accused the snowmobilers, increasing tensions between winter recreationists. In an effort to reconcile, volunteers on both sides rebuilt the yurt.

As the group faced their frustrations, snowmobile member Nancy Monk said, "We live together. We go to church together. Our children go to school together. What kind of example do we set if we walk away from these problems? What kind of community do we want?"

The group finally produced a map to present to Supervisor LeVere which allocates areas closed to winter motorized use, areas closed to winter motorized use until March 15 but open after that date, and areas open to winter use. In one area snowmobilers will be urged to stay on a designated route to protect the skiing opportunity adjacent to the area. In the areas open for winter motorized use, non-motorized recreationists will be advised that encounters with snowmobilers may be expected.

Supervisor LeVere took the group's recommendations and made his decision by special order. He also based his decision on advice from staff, review of the Forest Plan, other regulations, and the Endangered Species Act, professional judgment, and correspondence from other users. The decision makes provision for special use permittees and property owners to access their homes by snowmobile in the winter.

The group acknowledged that its work is just half over, even though they've gotten the agreement of their respective

constituencies. While they have laid a concrete foundation for management of the area's winter recreation, implementation will make it a reality. The skiers have historically had a "courtesy patrol;" this will now be expanded to include snowmobilers. Signs and informational material need to be produced and distributed. The public at large and the press must be enlisted to implement the plan and make it work.

The group will continue to meet this winter to refine issues as the plan's implementation is monitored.

The plan represents a compromise, according to Idaho State Snowmobile Association Public Lands Director Sandra Mitchell, "No one group received everything it wanted. In the end, we all had to give a little to get a little. The process was long and hard, but it was appropriate for this unique area."

Idaho Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, and Representative Mike Simpson praised the decision.

"I praise the collaborative efforts by back country skiers and snowmobilers that produced a decision they both can agree upon," Senator Craig said. "This is an excellent example of two feuding groups working together to ensure valid uses of our public lands continue. I applaud Forest Supervisor Bill LeVere for his leadership on this issue and hope that this effort can serve as a precedent on how to work out future land management disagreements."

Senator Crapo said, "These have been contentious issues in Idaho and elsewhere in the West, but it has been proven time and time again that bringing all sides to the table in a truly collaborative manner results in the best decision-making and this recreation plan is a good example of that."

Congressman Simpson said, "When local users sit down, work out their differences and solve the problem the public wins. This is exactly what should happen all over Idaho."

Although the circumstances and physical locale of the Wood River Winter Recreation Mapping Project are unique, the process they used is not. With the assistance of a skilled facilitator, such as Bob Werth, elements of the process can be identified and used in other situations. It is hoped that this kind of collaboration will be the future of land management planning.

October 2001

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