Paths of Least Resistance Backcountry Skiers, Snowmobilers, Find Uncommon Ground at Lookout Pass

By Francovich, Eli | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), January 20, 2019 | Go to article overview

Paths of Least Resistance Backcountry Skiers, Snowmobilers, Find Uncommon Ground at Lookout Pass


Francovich, Eli, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Shared use

14th annual Backcountry Film Festival

One way to support the Lookout-Stevens Winter Recreation Area is by attending this year's Backcoutry Film Festival. Money from the festival goes toward the ongoing shared-use effort. The adrenaline-filled films are also a fun way to spend an evening.

The film festival is Jan. 31 at The Hemmingson Center (702 E. Desmet Ave.) on the Gonzaga campus. To buy tickets visit winterwildlands.org/backcountry-film-festival/.

In a jam-packed room lined with lockers and the musky smell of oft-wet clothing, a circle of 25 covered familiar ground.

Chris Pfahl sat at the head of the table. He's president of the Shoshone County Groomer Association. An avid snowmobiler, he lives and works in the Silver Valley.

"We've been able to work this out for 20 years," Pfahl said to the group of assembled snowmobilers and skiers.

"And I don't think the snowmobilers want to pick a fight. We just want to protect our trails."

Across the table from Pfahl is John Latta, an experienced backcountry skier from Spokane who's spent three decades exploring North Idaho's winter backcountry.

"There is plenty of room for everyone to have a lot of fun," he said.

Monday's meeting in the ski patrol locker room of Lookout Pass Ski resort is just one in a two-decade effort spearheaded by Latta and Pfahl. The goal is to develop a shared-use plan for snowmobilers and back country skiers that the U.S. Forest Service can adopt.

Representatives from Idaho, Montana and Washington attended. Forest Service staff planned to attend but couldn't due to the federal shutdown.

The effort has stalled numerous times and not because the snowmobilers and skiers can't agree.

They can and do.

Instead, the effort has been stymied by the "revolving door" that is Forest Service leadership, Latta said. Every time the various groups have convinced a forest manager to buy into the effort, the manager would relocate and the citizen effort would be left at square one.

"We've never gotten close," Latta said. "But I'm really feeling that right now we're at the spot where we have the most potential."

The issue at stake is access to the St. Regis Basin, south of Lookout Ski area, and the Stevens Peak area. Both areas are popular with multiple winter recreationists because it's easily accessible from the highway and has terrain suitable for beginners, intermediates and experts.

But snowmobilers and skiers often don't see eye-to-eye. Skiers bemoan the noise, speed and impact of the heavy machines. Snowmobilers often feel that skiers are trying to take away their favorite places to play.

Through careful work, Latta and Pfahl have overcome many of these differences, developing an uncommon level of trust between the groups.

That collaborative spirit was on full display during Lookout's expansion planning in 2017. Skiers and snowmobilers presented their concerns with the expansion, which will develop slopes traditionally used by both groups.

As part of that 2017 discussion, the groups drafted a shared-use map. Under the terms of the unofficial agreement, snowmobilers would have a dedicated path to access the St. Regis Basin, as would skiers. Meanwhile, 3,500 acres in the Stevens Peak area would be designated nonmotorized (see map).

That sort of agreement is unusual, said Hilary Eisen, the policy director at the Winter Wildlands Alliance. …

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