Sledders say emergency action singles them out
After an exceptionally busy summer and fall in the North Cascades, the Methow Valley Ranger District is anticipating elevated use will continue and has closed several areas near Washington Pass to snowmobiles and motorized snow bikes to protect winter recreationists from avalanches.
Highway 20 remains open to all users.
“This is a closure based on health and safety,” Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr said last week.
The closure took effect Jan. 1 and runs through June 30. “This is temporary. A lot of folks have concerns that one year will turn into two, and then it will be permanent. It absolutely is not,” Furr said. “The intent is to get through this season and make time for user groups to revisit informal agreements between users given the increasing use.”
The order closes areas around Blue Lake, Cutthroat Creek and Cutthroat Peak to motorized use. Spire Gully, a popular area near the hairpin turn, remains open.
The ranger district implemented the closure on an emergency basis. For any changes to become permanent, there would be a formal process involving public comment. This closure is not meant as a start to any travel-management process, Furr said.
Several factors informed the decision by the ranger district. With gyms and other activities closed because of the COVID pandemic, people — some with little winter experience in the mountains — are flocking outdoors for recreation. And improving technology has created nimble, powerful snowmobiles and snow bikes (like a motorcycle with a ski in the front and tracks in the rear), making areas that haven’t traditionally seen motorized use accessible, Furr said.
In planning the closures, Methow Valley Ranger District staff talked to people familiar with where snowmobilers ride, who helped pinpoint the most popular areas. Based on specific input about where and how sledders access the area, they avoided those areas in the closure, Furr said.
North Cascades gate closure is moving
The North Cascades Highway’s closure point in the valley will move eastward from the Silver Star Gate (milepost 171) to Early Winters (milepost 177) on Wednesday (Jan. 6), the Washington State Department of Transportation announced.
The change was prompted by increasing winter conditions and allows maintenance crews to focus snow and ice control elsewhere, WSDOT said. The road will be gated at Early Winters, and a snow berm will be constructed.
Recreationalists should plan accordingly, WSDOT said, as vehicles will not be able to access the highway past the closure point.
Craig Stahl, president of the Methow Valley Snowmobile Association (MVSA), said the snowmobile community statewide and even nationally had “basically been blindsided by this closure.”
The closure has gained national attention, Stahl said by email. “It is a well-known fact that any safety concerns due to overcrowding are based on pure speculation. All outdoor recreation has become increasingly popular this past year due to COVID-19 restrictions on other areas of normal life,” he said.
MVSA understands that it’s challenging for the U.S. Forest Service to treat the broad range of recreationists equitably. “To single out one user group and restrict their access to public land to accommodate the concerns of another user group is wrong,” Stahl said.
MVSA said they’d had many conversations with the Forest Service about snowmobilers’ concerns over closing these areas and offered to help with safety education so that all users can enjoy the national forest.
Snowmobiler Dwain Hutson said he was not happy about the restrictions. “They’re just closing more areas off from the public,” he said. Hutson speculated that the closure is the culmination of a long-standing desire by skiers to exclude motorized users, not merely a response to high use in an unusual year.
The decision to restrict motorized access was made more urgent by recent recreation trends, but the potential for hazardous interactions has been on the radar of land managers since at least last winter, according to local backcountry skiers.
One weekend last February, a group of snowmobilers from out of the area rode all over the steep terrain in the Hairpin Valley above the hairpin turn, CB Thomas, a backcountry skier from Mazama, said. That outing created ruts several feet deep that pose a big risk to skiers. “I’ve rarely encountered tracks with the same level of destruction,” he said.
Some sledders went into the wilderness, which is off-limits to motorized vehicles. Skiers who witnessed the incident expressed their concerns to the ranger district last winter, Thomas said.
In past years, there’s been what several winter recreationists called a “gentleman’s agreement” between local backcountry skiers and local snowmobilers to share terrain safely. But as more skiers and snowmobilers come from out of the area — who aren’t familiar with the tacit agreement nor the terrain — the potential for conflicts has grown. “The highway can get territorial,” one skier said.
Particularly since the Highway 20 corridor is so accessible, it attracts a lot of people seeking an alpine experience who may not know how the area is shared, Furr said.
“Despite the area’s popularity and it being open to both motorized and nonmotorized winter use, in the past, different user groups could expect some level of separation due to terrain and technology limitations,” Furr said.
The entire area is at high risk for avalanches and more users compound the risk, said Victoria Wilkins, a public affairs officer with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Skiers can hear snowmobiles, but the sledders don’t necessarily see or hear skiers, she said.
Because snowmobiles travel so fast, they can be above a skier in no time, said one skier. “It’s impressive what these guys can do — they go up incredibly steep slopes,” he said.
Hutson said he’s never had problems snowmobiling at the pass. When he sees a skier’s tracks, he doesn’t ride above them, he said. Closing some areas will just concentrate people, instead of spreading them out, he said.
The closed sections haven’t been high-use areas for snowmobilers in the past, but the Okanogan-Wenatchee land managers were concerned they’d attract more people this year, Wilkins said. “This year is an unusual year, but it’s brought to the fore issues that need to be addressed,” she said.
Record winter use
With gyms and other activities closed because of the pandemic, public land managers across the state see people getting outside to recreate in record numbers, said Pamela McConkey, manager of the Washington State Parks Winter Recreation Program.
In November and December 2020, State Parks sold more than 4,400 daily passes and 5,500 seasonal Sno-Park permits online for non-motorized use — five times more than in 2019. That doesn’t count permits sold by local vendors, McConkey said. Ample early-season snow probably contributed, but many people simply want to get outside to exercise, she said.
McConkey is concerned about risks beyond avalanches as less experienced people head to the mountains. She reminded people to check the weather and pass conditions and be prepared with food, water, warm clothing and a blanket in case they get stuck on the road.
The number of skiers near Washington Pass has been growing dramatically for the past decade, and this season it’s been “through the roof,” said Thomas, who’s seen skiers sleeping in their campers at the Silver Star SnoPark. The number of snowmobilers has tripled, he said.
The fact that many downhill ski areas are requiring reservations and limiting lift tickets this year to keep crowds low has also driven people into the backcountry, Thomas said. A dearth of snow in Utah and Colorado has also drawn skiers to the Cascades.
“Skiers recognize the right for snowmobilers to recreate in the national forest,” Thomas said. But some areas may need to be segregated to keep everyone safe, he said. Many western states already restrict areas for skiers and snowmobilers, he said.
Snowmobile riders play an important role in safety, since snowmobiles are the fastest way to get to an injured person in the backcountry, Stahl said. Restricting access actually puts other users at greater risk, he said.
“With more users of the Highway 20 corridor and popularity growing, some groups are concerned about sharing their honey hole/fresh powder spots,” Stahl said.
“Everyone wants fresh snow — it’s a dream for snowmobilers and skiers — and it’s a limited resource,” Thomas said.
“It’s commendable that the Forest Service was able to see forward and wanted to participate in solving a problem before it became a crisis,” one backcountry skier said. “There’s going to be an adjustment period — for skiers, too.”
Furr said he understands that some snowmobilers are upset and question why they’ve been excluded. The closure was never meant to be punitive but, with such high winter use, the agency needed to do something, he said.
“This was in anticipation of an unprecedented level of use — what I didn’t want to have happen is that we knew about an increased level of risk, but I didn’t do anything and it resulted in a bad outcome,” Furr said.
Stahl said he’d like to see more collaborative efforts between all backcountry users, such as the recently achieved common goal of the new Sno-Park at Silver Star.
Sledders who commented on the MVSA Facebook page were dismayed that the closure had gone into effect without public comment. The Forest Service has already gotten pushback from the snowmobile community, Wilkins said.
When the Okanogan-Wenatchee updates its travel-management plan, that will be the proper place to address these issues, Stahl said. Furr said the district may restart its travel-management analysis, but that wouldn’t include travel on snow.
Furr encouraged snowmobilers to call the ranger district at 996-4000 if they have concerns. The district can suggest many places to ride.
There will be signs near the pass explaining the closure. Violators are subject to a fine of up to $5,000.