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Backcountry skiers, snowmobilers search for common ground

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At first glance it would appear to be akin to mixing oil and water, but last weekend?s initial meeting of recreational backcountry skiers and snowmobilers showed there is a great deal of common ground.

"People identified some priorities," said David Reilley of B.C. Assets and Lands Corp. "There was a sense by the end of the day that ? Kim Nilsson put it best ? he said ?you people are here as backcountry users, not as snowmobilers and skiers.? That?s an accommplishment."

Nilsson, a resident of Ketchum, Idaho, was brought in by BCAL to tell the story of how snowmobilers and cross-country skiers solved their backcountry conflicts in that region of Idaho. He said the Ketchum-Sun Valley area is much smaller than the Squamish Forest District, so their solutions might not work here ? but the process should work.

"We were at war," Nilsson said. "We spent three months without looking at a map. It took us that long to figure out that different people think differently. It took three or four months for us to establish trust."

Nilsson said the process was tense from the start, and tensions rose when a yurt used by both groups was burned down by an arsonist. Skiers thought a snowmobiler had done it and snowmobilers thought a skier had lit the match.

"What we finally decided was that it didn?t matter how that person got there, that person was a criminal," Nilsson said.

One of the keys to an agreement in Idaho was mutual recognition that winter recreation is a privilege, rather than a right.

The snowmobilers also took the skiers out on sleds and the skiers took the snowmobilers out skiing, so each group had a better appreciation for the other.

What the two sides ultimately decided on was specific winter recreation zones, entrenched in law, for motorized and non-motorized backcountry activities. All snowmobiles in Idaho have to be licensed, which provides a base of revenue for signs identifying the different zones, and for grooming of trails. A gasoline tax also goes toward grooming costs and a paid snowmobile administrator in Boise who co-ordinates snowmobile interests with various government agencies.

Skiers have to pay a fee to use the groomed trails too.

Approximately 40 people were invited to last weekend?s meeting at Myrtle Philip school, representing recreational skiers and snowmobilers, as well as some commercial operators. Although one skier suggested the local situation was close to a war, everyone seemed to recognize that conflict in the backcountry is an issue that has to be resolved collectively.

Others suggested they can learn from the Idaho experience, but the size of the Squamish Forest District and the narrow accesses to some of the recreational areas rule out zoning as a solution.

"Nobody was frustrated with the day," Reilley said. "They worked in small groups in the afternoon, with a cross-section of representation in each group. People thought it would be more acrimonious."

BCAL convened the meeting after receiving feedback from backcountry users during the commercial tenure process last winter. BCAL paid to bring Nilsson and a facilitator in for the first meeting but Reilley said the process should be owned by backcountry users.

"BCAL took the lead. It was a bit of a step outside our mandate, but by the end of the day the process was the community?s," Reilley said.

Participants pledged $4,000 Saturday toward continuing the process.

"When we heard rumblings last spring our thinking was if we don?t get on top of this it?s going to become a war," Reilley said. "It?s exciting we?ve got to a working stage now."

BCAL, and other government agencies, will stay involved in the process but it will be community driven.

Priorities were identified Saturday and working groups will now look at some options for those priorities. More public meetings will be held at a later date.

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