Heli Versus Hikers In Utah Backcountry: Wasatch Powderbird Guides has its wings clipped

Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG), the 25-year-old heli-skiing operation that’s served thousands of powder-seekers in the Wasatch-Cache and Uinta National Forests in Utah, has opted to reject a temporary permit issued by the National Forest Service, due to “severe limitations,” according to the WPG.

“It’s unjust,” says Brandie Hardman, marketing director for the WPG, regarding its new temporary permit. “The restrictions imposed by the Forest Service will force us to shut down. It’s a result of one interest group, Save Our Canyons, which the Forest Service favors, over another.”

The new temporary permit issued by the Forest Service allows the WPG to fly every other weekend, rather than every weekend as it did in the past. The WPG will also be restricted from entering certain areas when backcountry tourers are present, and will have to leave when backcountry tourers enter certain areas.

“The criteria for the WPG is narrower than in the past,” admits Forest Service spokesperson Dan Jerome. “But our goal is to do a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) so that we can issue a long-term permit to the WPG. We want to find a way to let the WPG operate, but we know there is controversy in this area between those who choose to heli-ski and backcountry tourers. It’s a tightrope act right now. We’re still trying to come up with something that Greg Smith, owner of WPG can work with, but we need to respond to all the parties involved.”

In 1991, the WPG completed an Environmental Assessment (EA) a medium-level assessment program, which it claims is rarely called for among guide and outfitter operations-and applied again in 1996, one year before the permit was to expire. But its EA in ’96 went over budget and behind schedule. In order for the WPG to continue operations last season, Bernie Weingardt, the Forest Service supervisor, determined that a one-year temporary permit would be issued to the WPG for the ’97/98 season, but that another temporary permit would not be allowed.

Unfortunately, midway through the WPG’s assessment last season, they were advised by the Forest Service to abandon the EA and start anew with an expanded EIS study-the highest level assessment reserved for areas with significant environmental or social impacts. Meanwhile, the heat was on from the Save Our Canyons people, who were also interested in a complete EIS on the WPG.

According to Save Our Canyons Founder Alexis Kelner, “The WPG has been a constant issue since the mid 70s. Our primary concern is public safety. There are concerns about avalanche bombing and instances that have been reported about landing on people who are ski touring and endangering them by skiing above them. There are trespassing concerns and complaints from landowners for landing on private properties and the problems with disturbances of golden eagle nesting. There’s one more issue: backcountry competition for powder terrain.”

The latter is perhaps the most poignant concern among all the backcountry users in the Wasatch Range. Encroachment will always be an issue in growing urban areas such as the Salt Lake Valley, and as humans, we all have our blind spots. But for those seeking powder in the Wasatch, it’s become a three-way tie: the WPG is issuing documents to the public listing its points of concern to solicit help, while Save Our Canyons continues to publish its newsletter voicing strong opinions against the WPG safety and encroachment factors. Sandwiched in-between is the Forest Service, which says its continuing to work on an interim permit and an EIS statement with the WPG, which will take “every bit of every day from now until next season to complete.”

With public input more necessary than ever to resolve these issues, how one obtains fresh tracks in Utah this season may be a more loaded question than most powderhounds realize. Suddenly, the land with “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” just got smaller.

Kathleen Gasperini