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First There Was A Mountain: A new proposal could change the face of winter 

click to enlarge A solitary moment.
  • A solitary moment.
A solitary moment.
As a rule, backcountry skiers don't tend to make a lot of noise. Aside from the occasional powder whoop, they tend to tread pretty lightly.

The same principle holds true away from the slopes where backcountry enthusiasts tend to keep a low political profile. But a new proposal from a group of backcountry skiers is causing a stir in the outdoor recreation community and could shake up the way the Forest Service manages one of the most popular winter recreation zones near Bend.

What some backcountry users want - there is no formal backcountry skiers group in Central Oregon - is for the Forest Service to re-draw snowmobile boundaries around Tumalo Mountain, moving the sleds entirely off the butte.

Backcountry skiers are accustomed to working for their turns, but this is a different kind of uphill battle that pits backcountry skiers against well organized motorized users and their supporters, which include, somewhat surprisingly, a number of cross country skiers who benefit from the snowmobilers grooming efforts. Skiers are also up against a historical "anything-goes" attitude about winter recreation from the Forest Service, which much prefers "shared" recreation opportunities for all user groups than to shut out one group entirely, as would be the case on Tumalo.

But some local backcountry enthusiasts say the current management approach on Tumalo, which divides the mountain in non-motorized and shared use areas, isn't working for skiers, many of whom eschewed the resort scene for a more solitary experience only to be bombarded by snowmobile traffic. It's not just crowded trails, new and more powerful snowmobiles are allowing riders to reach higher and more remote places. It's not unusual for skiers on Tumalo today to reach the summit only to be greeted by a group of snowmobilers ripping up the north-east bowl just a few yards from the non-motorized area. Backcountry skiers acknowledge that's perfectly legal, but it's also perfectly maddening for them.

"I think what really sucks, and this is what is hard for the Forest Service and snowmobilers to understand, is that you spend an hour and 15 minutes in fairly peaceful surroundings, working pretty hard to get to the top and crest the summit of Tumalo and there are guys high marking with their snowmobiles a 100 yards away," said Erik Johnson, a local marketing strategist who estimates that he was up on Tumalo about 30 times last year.

What Johnson is referring to is an increasingly popular form of off-trail snowmobiling wherein riders test their own limits and the limits of their machines by seeing who can reach the highest point on a steep ungroomed slope - a "sport" that has evolved with the advent of ever more powerful snowmachines.

Because of the situation, many backcountry skiers are choosing to get their turns elsewhere, most notably Todd Lake. But it's a greater distance from the parking lot at Dutchman Flat and chews up much of a skiers' day. By contrast, Johnson said he can leave his house at 6 a.m. on a weekday, get in a run on Tumalo, and be at his desk at work by 9 a.m.

Some backcountry skiers had all but given up on Tumalo until this recent proposal surfaced as part of the ongoing discussion about expanding parking on Century Drive.

"If I want to have a quiet backcountry experience, I don't come into Tumalo anymore because I know I'm going to run into a bunch of motors in the bowl, so I go to Todd Lake, But I saw this as an opportunity to get some parity in the backcountry," said John Sterling, who has been skiing here for about half a dozen years and runs a local, environmentally focused non profit.

Skiers say they don't want to push the snowmachines out of the forest, or even the backcountry. However, they say the Forest Service needs to acknowledge that the shared-use doctrine doesn't always make sense for some types of uses and that some segregation on a place like Tumalo makes sense.

Larry Riser is president of the Moon Country Sno-Mobilers, a local chapter of the powerful Oregon State Snowmobile Association. Riser said snowmobilers groomed more than 5,000 miles of trails around the Mt. Bachelor area on Century Drive last year and have a great relationship with most winter users. He characterized the current campaign as a sort of one man-crusade by the proposal's architect, Dale Neubauer, a local backcountry advocate who has been working on winter recreation issues around Century Drive for a decade and a half.

"He's not going to win any friends, and that includes many people at this time," said Riser, a 73-year old retired heavy equipment salesman who has been snowmobiling in the Cascades since the mid-1970s.

Neubauer counters that he is far from alone and says that more than 500 people have signed onto the Tumalo Backcountry petition at his group's website ( despite little public exposure.

For its part, the Forest Service acknowledges that it faces some tough management challenges on Tumalo where the area is cut like a pie into four quadrants - two non-motorized and two "shared", which skiers say are basically de-facto motorized areas -as part of a 2003 management plan. But violations are the norm. Acting Bend Fort Rock Ranger Bob Deane couldn't provide enforcement numbers for boundary incursions by snowmobiles, but skiers are quick to attest to the number of incidents they see and there is plenty of photo evidence to back that up.

"As with most any other new regulation and direction there is a period of time we have to go through to educate users to gain compliance," Deane said. "We experienced that with recreation fees and a number of other areas."

Asked whether the Forest Service, in an era of budget cuts, had adequate personnel to police the area, Deane said, "Not as much as we'd like to."

"I think most everyone would agree that we still have compliance issues and that need to be addressed, the question is what way to address it," he said.

Nonetheless, he said the agency isn't seriously considering the Tumalo Backcountry proposal as a reasonable mitigation measure for the Kapka Butte Sno-Park expansion. The Sno-Park, which the agency is expected to break ground on in 2009, would add 70 new parking spots with room for trailers (i.e. snowmachine spaces) on Century Drive. Skiers, including the proposal's architect, Neubauer, say the expanded parking will further inundate places like Tumalo with motorized users and needs to be offset by some management steps.

"We don't have dirt bike trails through Drake Park for obvious reasons. We don't have jet skis on Hosmer for obvious reasons," said Neubauer, an aircraft mechanic and admitted gearhead who rides a vintage Harley.

Neubauer believes now is the best chance that skiers and the Forest Service have to address the user conflict issues in the corridor. The Forest Service's Deane doesn't necessarily disagree, but he said the Kapka project is not the right forum.

"It's like Mt. Bachelor coming to the Forest Service and saying they'd like to expand their parking service and objections being raised to that because a small number of their guests ski out of bounds," he said.

Still proponents say they plan to push on in-spite of the lukewarm, at best, reception from the Forest Service.

"I think we'd keep at it. I'm certainly not giving up on this opportunity because I feel like we have some leverage," Sterling said.


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