Forest Service Mulls Changes to Big Mountain Uphill Policy

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Next winter, the U.S. Forest Service could begin issuing tickets to people who violate Whitefish Mountain Resort’s uphill policy. The resort’s management is considering changes after two people violated the rules by entering an area where avalanche control was underway.

The uphill ski policy was the subject of a packed public meeting organized by the Flathead National Forest on Friday, March 21, at the Pin and Cue in Whitefish. Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber and Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves were both on hand.

Whitefish Mountain Resort is one of 122 ski areas across the country operating on National Forest Service land under a special use permit. It is also one of a few ski areas in the region that allow people to ascend ski runs and ski down for free – an activity growing in popularity on Big Mountain.

On Feb. 19, a ski patroller encountered a male and a female skier on the summit of Big Mountain. The patroller told the skiers that avalanche work was underway in the Hellroaring Basin and East Rim areas and asked the skiers to head down the Toni Matt route. Later, the same skiers were told the same by a second patroller. Soon after, in Hellroaring Basin, the skiers were seen descending the closed slope near where an explosive charge was about to be deployed. The patrollers were able to extinguish the explosive before anyone was hurt.

Graves, the resort’s CEO, appeared frustrated with the situation at the meeting and said his primary concerns are keeping skiers safe, but also protecting the resort and its employees from lawsuits.

“This is a serious issue and we need to solve it,” Graves said. “(Skiing uphill on Big Mountain) is not a right, it’s a privilege and we’ve tried to let everyone enjoy the mountain, but it only takes one incident to end it for us.”

Weber, the forest supervisor, echoed Graves concerns, while adding that it was important to maintain access to public lands. A vast majority of the resort is located on the Flathead National Forest.

“It presents a dilemma for me as the forest manager,” Weber said. “I want to keep giving people access to this land, but another goal is providing public safety.”

Hans Castren, recreational staff officer for the Tally Lake Ranger District and the permit liaison between the forest service and the resort, is drafting an updated version of the special order that allows people to skin up the mountain. It will better align with the resort’s policies and allow Forest Service law enforcement officers to issue tickets to those who violate the rules. Currently, the only violation that can warrant a ticket is if someone skies within 100 feet of a grooming machine. Tickets for violating the rules could include a $100 fine.

During the ski season, uphill traffic is limited to two routes on Big Mountain, Toni Matt and the East Route. The Toni Matt Route follows that run from the lift plaza to the summit and is marked by red diamonds and an arrow. It is open to uphill traffic from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. The East Route begins at the Base Lodge, crosses the bridge toward the ski and ride school and clinic and ascends lower Inspiration, Expressway, Moe-Mentum and Fill Hill to the summit. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. There are no route restrictions before or after ski season, but Castren said additional rules could be implemented to allow the resort to conduct work on the hill in the days and weeks before and after the season.

The March 21 meeting, part of the Flathead National Forest’s bi-monthly Flathead Forest Friday breakfast, was marketed as a way for the public to gather more information about possible changes to the uphill policy and provide their input. Some attendees suggested the resort establish an uphill route through the trees that stays away from groomers, while others pondered why the resort didn’t just sell uphill passes in hopes that it would deter the rule breakers. Graves said selling uphill passes would bring additional liability to the resort.

“Believe it or not, we’re not interested in the revenue (from uphill skiing), we’re interested in safety,” he said. “The fact of the matter is anyone can sue anyone at anytime and it happens.”

Most of those in attendance thought the meeting was positive and productive. Larry Parsons of West Glacier has been skinning and skiing up Big Mountain for three years.

“I saw a lot of positives and I think we’re all wanting to go in the same direction,” he said.

The Flathead National Forest plans on having another meeting about the uphill ski policy before next season.

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