Two Ocean access to stay the same in forest plan

Two Ocean access to stay the same in forest plan

Access on Two Ocean Mountain will stay the same under the Shoshone National Forest’s preferred alternative in its forest management plan, forest supervisor Joe Alexander told a group of skiers in Lander on Tuesday.

“It’s a local issue that should be handled under travel management,” Alexander said.

Kelsey Dayton

For several years, some skiers have advocated closing a small portion of the peak on Togwotee Pass to snowmobiling. Those skiers have worried about safety, saying snowmobiles are heavier and can trigger avalanches in areas where skiers are below, and that the machines tear up the snow and leave hazardous grooves underneath the surface. They worry that increased use is going to result in collisions. Snowmobilers say the land is meant to be multi-use and should stay that way, and that it isn’t fair to exclude a user group. They say safety issues are being overblown.

The issue of access in an area less than a square mile on the mountain, generated a significant amount of public comment — more than 20,000 form letters and more than 1,000 substantive comments — during the forest plan’s public planning process. The forest will release its final plan in October.

The Forest Service held a public meeting in Dubois in February. More than 250 snowmobilers arrived in buses for that public meeting. Only a few skiers showed up, and some said on Tuesday they didn’t feel comfortable speaking at the February event.

That February meeting in Dubois was a surprise even to the Forest Service. They expected about 50 people. Alexander said it was hard to control the meeting and he didn’t get a chance to hear from skiers.

Fremont County Commissioner Stephanie Kessler organized a meeting with Alexander and area skiers after learning many skiers felt their voices hadn’t been heard at the public meeting. More than 20 skiers attended the meeting.

A skier plows through the powder on Mary’s Nipple in the Tetons. (Austin King/Flickr — click to view)

After listening to concerns from skiers, Alexander said, the issue is too small to be addressed in the forest plan and that it should be solved on a local level. The plan says what could happen in areas, not what should happen, he explained. Those specifics are laid out in travel management plans, created after the draft forest plan is finished or can be solved locally through the groups coming together.

“(The forest plan) is just simply not the tool to fix it,” he said of the conflict.

Skiers say they feel displaced and are asking the forest to displace the snowmobilers, he said.

The forest service plan, as proposed, would shrink snowmobile access, closing acreage that has been identified as critical winter range for wildlife and closing more than 20,000 acres in the DuNoir special management area, Alexander said.

Skiers and snowmobilers need to sit down together and talk about the issue at a meeting not hosted by the Forest Service. Forest Service staff could attend and help facilitate, but if it’s a private meeting, the host can invite select people which would allow for a more civil and controlled dialogue, Alexander said.

Kessler offered at the beginning of the Tuesday meeting to help organize a sit-down between both groups. But both sides say they have tried to sit down and work together and nothing has happened.

“We have been addressing it locally for over 10 years,” said Forrest McCarthy with the national non-profit Winter Wildlands Alliance. “Local skiers have spent countless hours attending meetings and commenting.”

McCarthy, who lives in Jackson and also skis recreationally on Togwotee Pass, said he was disappointed in the meeting.

“The Shoshone National Forest is addressing winter recreation on the rest of the forest, but unwilling to address it in the area with the greatest user conflict,” he said after the meeting. “Not addressing it in the forest plan is a missed opportunity.”

John Lee, a snowmobiler in Dubois, said he wasn’t interested in sitting down with skiers, agreeing that past efforts have gone nowhere. “This has been rehashed so many times,” he said. Lee also said as long as the Forest Service keeps access the same, there is no reason to sit down and talk with skiers.

Lee said he doesn’t believe there is a problem with skiers and snowmobilers sharing the peak. There aren’t safety, or any other kinds, of issues, he said. “We can share it,” Lee said. “Everyone can play there.”

Two skiers at the meeting in Dubois even spoke out in favor of keeping access the same, which surprised – and pleased — Lee, he said.

Lee said he doesn’t believe the area is at risk for avalanches because he’s never seen avalanche debris in the area. Often skiers are above the snowmobiles, so if there is avalanche risk its more dangerous for those on machines. Lee, who snowmobiles on Two Ocean at least twice a week in the winter, said he’s never had a close or surprise encounter with a skier. There isn’t a danger of collisions. It’s about one group not wanting to share the land, he said.

“We want no closures on Two Ocean Mountain,” he said. “We will not compromise at all in this area.”

Many snowmobilers also worry it’s a slippery slope. If they give up access on Two Ocean, what will be next?

“We’re just tired of giving,” said Lee.

Darran Wells, assistant professor of outdoor education and leadership at Central Wyoming College, said skiers asking for more terrain and pushing snowmobilers out of more areas on Togwotee Pass isn’t realistic because skiers are limited to specific terrain, while snowmobilers can access much more.

Two Ocean is historically a ski area. There are even remnants of an old rope tow from the 60s, he said.

“We’ve just been run off the mountain by the snow machines,” he said.

Kim Wilbert, a skier from Riverton, said he started skiing on Togwotee Pass in the 1970s. Snowmobiles then didn’t have the capabilities to access the same terrain as skiers. Skiers had the area to themselves. Wilbert said he hasn’t skied in the area since the 1990s once snowmobiles began overtaking the area and cutting up the terrain.

Many of the skiers at the meeting said they avoid the Two Ocean area now on the weekends, or completely.

Stacy Wells, who teaches a Central Wyoming College backcountry skiing course on Two Ocean, said the place is attracting more beginner skiers who struggle with the terrain cut up by the machines. Wells said she also has nearly run into a snowmobile while skiing on the mountain, avoiding an accident by veering out of the way and crashing.

Skiers were disappointed after the meeting.

“Honestly (I’m) not very hopeful but not very surprised either,” Darran Wells said in an email after the meeting.

He said, if ignored, the conflict will only get worse, especially as resort skiing becomes more expensive and backcountry ski grows in popularity.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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