The ski world has always been rife with conflict—whether between hotdoggers and racers of yore, skiers and snowboarders in the Eighties, or boot-packers fouling skin tracks outside resorts. But nothing compares to the growing conflict in British Columbia between heli-ski/cat-ski operations and snowmobiling.
"This year hasn't been bad so far," says Kieren Gaul of Big Red Cats, a cat-skiing operation based in Rossland, B.C. "But a week ago I had a group out and went to test this big avalanche path to see if we could ski it. The group was at a safe spot and I was down testing in the start zone, when these two skiers came out of nowhere and skied the avalanche path right on top of me. If the thing had released... well, we all would have died."
The rogue skiers had accessed Big Red's terrain in a quad driven by a third person who was dropping them off and picking them up using the operation's network of snowcat roads. And though clearly in violation of the unspoken rules of backcountry land-use sharing — not to mention safety — they were doing so perfectly legally.
Gaul has reason to be alarmed about the incident. A few years back, a snowmobiler accepted money to ferry a skier into Big Red's tenure where he was subsequently killed by a self-triggered avalanche. Big Red had to dig out the body and the police shut down the area to skiing while they investigated, a gross inconvenience for guests from around the world who'd paid hefty sums to experience B.C.'s world-renowned powder. Again last year, a snowmobiler well-known to Big Red who'd been rooping around on its ski runs for years went into an area that had, to that point, proven safe for him — largely because of ongoing use by Big Red. But given the way snow fell last year, they hadn't skied the area as much and it was dangerous, with buried layers uncompressed by the usual skier compaction. The snowmobiler was buried and died, again shutting down a large block of the operation until the coroner finished investigating.
If this seems unfair to Big Red Cats, you're right. If the obvious solution appears to be formally restricting use of the terrain to the tenure holder, you're also right. But if you think the latter is easily achieved, you're dead wrong. B.C.'s archaic Land Act and the non-exclusive tenure system it has spawned are among the most immovable of legislative objects, mired in a morass of politics. As Gaul sees it, the existing tenure system — in which the province's 600 commercial adventure tourism entities pay for the right to operate on Crown land within certain proprietary boundaries that exclude similar commercial activity but not the public — functions "in a kind of optimistic way where everyone just hopes things are going to work out."
And they largely do work out when stakeholders sit down together. "Since the beginning we've had agreements with local snowmobile clubs not to access our terrain during the months we're operating," says Gaul. "We let them know when we're done for the season so they can go in and it has worked out really well. But there's always one or two sledders who get it in their heads to go in there then claim they've been using it forever."
Thus the fatal flaw in the land-use system: the integrity of people. That the province continues to put the onus on individuals to know about and respect commercial land users makes that system fraught, susceptible both to impacts by uninformed newcomers to an area, and the one per cent who are in the know but simply don't care. In the end, as Gaul has experienced first-hand, it adds up to "a crazy system that leads to accidents."
The One Per Cent
From the Alaska border to the southern Kootenays, B.C.'s heli- and cat-skiing operators have area-based tenures renewable on 20-year terms. When it comes to winter backcountry use on this vast swath of Crown land, however, conflict has a lengthy history, whether self-propelled skiers versus mechanized transport of all varieties, or tenured mechanized commercial operators versus mechanized public users. Commercial operators have largely worked things out with the non-mechanized crowd, and have made progress in forging share agreements with the mechanized public in many places. But not all.
A number of operators have found themselves in heated and protracted battles with intransigent individuals for years. One, Powder Cowboy cat-skiing near Fernie, was trashed so often and so thoroughly by vindictive snowmobilers that the operation became unviable and folded. That's a big deal in a province that hosts the world's largest mechanized backcountry ski industry, but it isn't unique, occurring wherever the two entities find themselves battling over land. (I was once out skiing with Blomidon Cats in Corner Brook, N.L., at the time the only cat-ski operation east of the Mississippi, when we discovered a bridge the owner had built to access his tenure had been dynamited by sledders with whom he'd been having run-ins. With a cat-load of paying customers he'd had to turn around, issuing full refunds to all after burning up hundreds of dollars in fuel.)
Far from embracing such acrimony, mechanized backcountry operators in B.C. have gone out of their way to sit down with snowmobile groups and government to work collaboratively on mutual-use solutions. Yet conflict continues to accelerate for several reasons: 1) a spike in snowmobiler numbers in B.C., particularly from out of province as the sport has become a serious winter tourism draw (for example, as a jurisdiction, Alberta leads the world in snowmobile sales); 2) more powerful, farther-ranging machines can penetrate deeper and higher into the alpine; 3) an increasingly indifferent element in the culture justifies tearing up wildlife and other closures as a form of protest; and 4) with a strong and moneyed snowmobile lobby supported by sled manufacturers, the provincial government has, to date, been unwilling to fundamentally alter tenure rules to separate clashing user groups.
Some might describe this quandary as laughable — a B-grade Japanese horror flick entitled Battle of the Carbon Monsters. But analysis projects a different film: a highly regulated, safety-conscious, world-renowned backcountry snow industry worth some $200 million annually is battling for space it already pays for with an unregulated, safety-poor, often disrespectful recreational sector that, coincidentally, is also pouring hundreds of millions — and growing — into provincial and local coffers. One is a mature industry, the other not so much. But there's more than enough space in B.C. for both groups to be out there without overlap, so what's the issue?
"In a word, disrespect," says Beat Steiner, a Whistler resident and co-owner of Bella Coola Heli Sports. "The majority of heli-ski companies try to be respectful of other backcountry users. The vast majority of snowmobilers are equally respectful and there's no problem, but those who do intentionally disrupt other people's pleasure in the backcountry — as well as ignoring impacts on wildlife — are behaving in the opposite way."
The Tenure Bogeyman
"In my opinion it has reached a critical point," says Whistler-based resort planner and industry consultant Brent Harley, whose clientele includes several such operations. Harley also sat on the board of the Canada West Ski Areas Association for five years, helping spearhead efforts by the heli/cat industry to get the provincial Adventure Tourism policy adjusted.
"The policy is weak and tries to do too many things for too many people," says Harley. "It covers the whole of what's considered adventure tourism — kayaking, fishing, grizzly bear hunting, rafting, jet-boating — as well as heli and snowcat ops that have unique needs and expectations. The B.C. Land Act allows public access to Crown land, and snowmobiling is one of those activities that happens all over it. There are closed and restricted access areas for wildlife and other reasons but, by and large, snowmobilers don't care. They go anywhere they please, whenever they please."
While true to a degree, like Gaul, most operators are careful to point out that this involves only a tiny fraction of the snowmobiling public. The problem for a business selling a commodity as unique and ephemeral as powder, however, is that it only takes a tiny fraction to do irreparable damage.
"Like anything in life it's one per cent of the people that cause problems," says Don Schwartz of Whistler-based Powder Mountain Catskiing and Heliskiing. "And around here it's not the locals. They understand that companies like ours employ people and put money into the community. We see the same 20 to 30 people every day going past on our roads heading to sledding areas and there's no problem. In fact, they actually police things for us, telling other sledders how to stay out of our tenure. The locals are also smart and trained. They'd be there to help if we ever needed them. Not so (with) people coming up here from other places."
In the big scheme of things, Schwartz notes, they rarely have problems. "But today was one of those days," he tells me on the phone in early February. "Some new guys from the city came in and wrecked a huge area. We lost $10,000 today. It's like someone breaking into your store and taking what they want from your inventory. They could have driven 300 metres in the other direction and had unlimited riding. Instead, they were on our runs, creating a real hazard if you're a skier going down and you don't know a sled is coming up at you. They didn't know anything about mountains or avalanches, they're out there guzzling beer at lunchtime, and there's nothing we could do about it. It doesn't just hurt the company if I have to shut down for three days — it hurts 20 staff and their families. I wouldn't go to someone else's work site and wreck everything they sell and endanger their lives."
Gaul believes the solution to be a simple one: heli- and cat-skiing operations should be eligible for a Controlled Recreation Area (CRA) permit — the same used by ski resorts — to cover at least a percentage of their tenure. For example, they may wish to protect certain runs close to their base, or those on which they've done key work such as glading. "There are often areas where you have to finish the day and if sledders rip them up, it's a real problem. A lot of stuff isn't skiable but for the glading and roads we've built, so why shouldn't we have the same protections as a ski area?"
It's a valid point. No right-minded snowmobiler thinks to go in and rip up ski-area runs, but in many cases cat and heli operators have made similar investments in the slopes they use. And the kicker is they're willing to pay for more protection. "Who ever approaches government with an offer to pay more?" says David Lynn, past-president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA), who did extensive work on the CRA during his term. "I still think it's a good idea. You could protect the entire tenures of all cat-skiing operations without impacting snowmobiling, and with heli-skiing at least part of the tenures. It only makes sense."
Currently, operators pay a yearly base fee for a tenure (in the tens of thousands of dollars) plus a small per-skier fee. According to Gaul, operators would be willing to increase the amount of the skier fee in return for a CRA. In turn he believes the heli/cat sector could grow under such protections, maybe "doubling the number of people out there if you weren't losing all these runs to snowmobilers, and then you could invest more money in glading and opening more runs. It would be a boon to provincial and local economies — especially given the multiplier effect from goods and services travellers purchase."
Gaul also believes the province should have to invest at least part of that extra money in enforcement. "It's incredibly easy to find offenders because they have to park somewhere and they can be traced via (a) licence plate."
For his part, Schwartz sees forging local agreements as the operators' only viable tool, and isn't optimistic about the prospect of a CRA, or that government would actually put more money toward enforcement. "Right now there's only one enforcement guy for all of southwestern B.C. ... so... there's that."
Ian Tomm, executive director of HeliCat Canada, a Revelstoke-based organization created in 1978 to represent heli- and cat-skiing businesses, says the group doesn't favour the CRA solution. "It's a complex problem with many overlapping issues. For instance, the concept of 'high-value' terrain differs between operators. Some don't see it as the areas closer to the base that they've worked on, but the most far-flung areas that they only get to ski once or twice a year," says Tomm, a heli-ski guide most of his professional career. "But over the past couple years, I've seen progress in local processes. Little wins here and there. The big problems continue to be big, but when local stakeholders get together to define a problem and work through it, agreements are made. Some operators have even embraced snowmobiling groups to the point of adding to their bottom line through it."
That HeliCat Canada and the CWSAA have different views isn't unusual; the two groups have historically been at odds. During his time on the CWSAA board, Harley worked to encourage the two to merge. It didn't happen, yet both continue to agree on one thing: the way Crown land is managed in B.C. hasn't kept up with the way it's used, and the villain is the archaic tenure system.
"It comes down to bad policy. If you go back to when (the tenure system) was implemented, the population was lower, the number of backcountry recreators lower, the number of snowmobilers lower, and the machines much less powerful," says Lynn.
"The contract language of tenures goes back at least 15 years and possibly longer. The fundamental framework goes back more than 30 years," adds Tomm. "Like any updating process, you pick the low-hanging fruit and chip away at the easy stuff. The hard stuff is always left 'til last."
Higher-ups at B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations who have aegis in this area were not available for comment, but a spokesperson happily provided me with a list of bromides about working with both the public recreation and commercial sectors to resolve conflicts at the local level (that is, stepping back and letting someone else work it out), and to point out that there are existing processes to give decision makers opportunity to manage for both uses — opportunities that, according to industry, are too rarely taken up.
Many operators alluded to specific economic equations. In one example, a single snowmobile could destroy enough terrain in a day to keep a group of 12 skiing for a week (or 84 skiing for a day). And while one person renting a snowmobile for a day and buying gas and food and accommodation might spend $400, 84 people paying $1,000 a day to heli-ski brings in $84,000. This would seem iniquitous even if you presented it to a fifth grader, yet it's still anecdotal. Are there any hard facts?
Yes. Impact statistics culled from a report submitted to the province last year by Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing are eye-opening. Despite direct engagement with snowmobile groups, Wiegele has seen his business impacted in the form of ever-diminishing quantities of the very product it sells — untracked snow: in 1970, of the skiable terrain in Wiegele's 1,200,000-acre tenure, 74 per cent of this was classed as regular and 26 per cent as high-value, the amount of both impacted by snowmobiles at zero; by 2015, 57 per cent of total skiable terrain was regularly impacted by snowmobiles, leaving only 38 per cent of regular and five per cent of high-value terrain unimpacted. This makes a difference when not all of a tenure is available at any given time. Of Wiegele's approximate 1,000 ski runs, when visibility, snow stability, flying limitations due to weather, and economic and practical access are taken into account, the number of high-value runs available can be as few as five. When these are further impacted by snowmobiling, choices become severely limited.
Everyone gets that folks with sleds want to go out for a day of fun on the Crown land that they, like everyone else, are entitled to use. Nobody wants to change that. But it frustrates the commercial operators pouring money into B.C. through fees, licences, taxes and visitations that their business is allowed to be so negatively impacted by those bee-lining to take advantage of a backcountry free-for-all from places like Alberta, Washington, Idaho and Montana where public snowmobiling areas are more limited and heavily regulated (though the same can be said of heli- and cat-skiing in those places). A 2015 CWSAA survey found more than 79 per cent of B.C.'s heli and cat operators were having problems with unregulated public snowmobiling — a whopping 92 per cent of these believed new forms of tenure were required to deal with the situation. Those like Wiegele who fight back often acquire a target on their back. In a bar in Valemount, a friend of Harley's once overheard snowmobilers plotting to "get Wiegele" that weekend. Considering that Wiegele's, like Big Red Cats, has had to interrupt clients' skiing to go and rescue — or recover the bodies — of a number of interloping sledders from avalanches, you have to wonder where this animus comes from.
At its root, it's political. As one operator put it: "If you're a politician do you want to side with a heli-ski operator or the regular guy who rides a sled? Part of the problem has also been politics within the industry."
Even dedicated sledders acknowledge how the core issue of a small number of bad actors is ruining things for the majority: "...(there are) too many morons that show up with a truck and trailer full of sleds and think they can ride anywhere without researching the area at all," says a longtime rider in the online forum snowandmud.com. "There's also the arrogant ones (locals and non-locals) who ride wherever they feel like it... Also, lots of people getting into sled-skiing these days... accessing lots of backcountry where they shouldn't be, because they can't ski the easy slopes in the traditional sled areas. So they go and use the cat-ski operation areas instead. In a low snow year it gets even worse because (everyone) is looking for 'fresh,' so people push farther for it. When this happens, it's inevitable that someone rides where they shouldn't."
On the same online forum thread, the tooth-and-nail fighters have also made their position clear. "I've been involved in land-use issues in this valley for a long time. I've seen over and over 'closures' that really were not real closures, fake ministry signs posted in our sled areas... I am not giving up another inch of this land without a fight..."
"Government has listened," summarizes Harley, "but they've tried to take a soft approach of compromise and won't change the policy because of fear of backlash from the snowmobile community — they're a big voting bloc in rural communities. They're also afraid of First Nations reactions to any more land management by government."
Like Tomm says: Complex and overlapping. One thing, at least, is clear to Harley: "If B.C. wants the iconic snowcat and heliski industry to survive and have the snowmobiling sector grow as well, they'll have to put regulations in place that ensure everyone plays nice in the sandbox."
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