After two years of battling and researching, Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG), a 26-year-old heli-skiing and boarding operation, has been granted renewal of its multi-use permit–with some restrictions.
Public sentiment has been broadly divided over the issue of backcountry use since the company's permit first came up for renewal in 1997. The most outspoken oppponent has been Save Our Canyons, a group of ski mountaineers who strongly oppose helicopters utilizing the same terrain as hikers.
An extensive and costly environmental impact statement (EIS) investigated the risk of helicopters in the multi-use areas (regions where motorized vehicles are allowed) of the Wasatch-Cache and Uinta National Forests (see box for key points of permit renewal).
In a written statement, Bernie Weingardt, forest supervisor for the WCNF, noted the diffuculty in making everyone happy: “This decision is designed both to provide for continued helicopter skiing opportunities, and to provide an opportunity for backcountry users who use non-motorized access to avoid interactions with helicopter skiing if they wish.”
According to Rusty Dassing, fifteen-year veteran heli guide for WPG, the ruling is “arbitrary and capricious,” and the company plans to appeal portions of it. The two most controversial points are the limit of one helicopter per day, and closure of terrain closest to the heliport on Sundays and Mondays.
“The EIS clearly vindicates the heli operation,” Dassing says. “and yet portions of this ruling go opposite of that finding.”
Alexis Kelner, cofounder and member of the board of trustees for SOC, says the group is still studying the decision but is considering appeal based on two safety issues: not landing helicopters above hikers and not dropping skiers on terrain above hikers.
“Our position has been based on four key points: safety, noise, wildlife, and competition for terrain,” Kelner says. “We feel the safety issue is grounds for appeal.”
The Utah division of the United States Department of Agriculture–Forest Service has renewed WPG's multi-use permit with some key restrictions.
• Operating season from December 15 to April 15.
• “No-fly” zones within half a mile of golden eagle nests.
• Authorization of two helicopters based at Snowbird Resort with only one heli at a time operating in the Tri-Canyon area (Mill Creek, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Little Cottonwood Canyon) except for up to five days per season with prior approval.
• Limit of 300 explosive charges a season while testing for avalanche danger.
• Caps on skier/rider days in the Tri-Canyon and Northern Powder Circuit.
• Closure of the Tri-Canyon area Sundays and Mondays.