Forbidden ground 

Avalanche deaths more than a private tragedy

Two incidents in the last week are casting doubt on whether designated non-motorized backcountry areas are remaining the bastions of quiet solitude they’re intended to be. If nothing else, the increasing disregard for such designations by motorized recreationists—and the lack of enforcement by the federal agencies charged with their management—flies in the face of so-called “collaborative” agreements being pushed by the Bush administration, which are supposed to protect certain areas while maintaining others for motorized use.

The first report was the result of a fly-over of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Mission Mountains Wilderness and the Jewel Basin Hiking Area by personnel from the Flathead National Forest. What they found was not encouraging. Despite the fact that these areas are permanently closed to snowmobiling and all other motorized use, the overflight spotted snowmobile tracks in all three areas.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case where someone accidentally wandered into an area, unaware they had crossed the wilderness boundary. The same thing has been prevalent for years in the Beartooth Wilderness, where the deep snowpack and high mountains seem irresistible to snowmobile scofflaws who live to charge their howling machines up steep mountain faces as high as they can get before turning them back downhill.

In this little game, called “highmarking,” the untracked slopes found in areas where motorized use is prohibited provide the perfect palette on which to leave their individual tracks. Unfortunately, those big, steep, open slopes also provide the best chance for deadly avalanches like the one that claimed the lives of two Townsend snowmobilers last weekend.

Brett Toney, 27, Kris Rains, 26, and Jason Crawford, 27, were snowmobiling in the Big Belt Mountains on the Helena National Forest when they triggered a slab avalanche that swept all three men down the mountain. Toney and Rains were killed and Crawford was buried, but managed to extricate himself and wander out for help.

While it is a tragedy that these young lives were cut short, it was only after the incident was reported that the details of where it happened were released. And yep, you guessed it, the steep slope where the slab avalanche killed the men was closed to motorized travel. “It’s a proposed wilderness area, which is why it’s non-motorized,” Forest Service spokesperson Amy Teegarden told reporters. “We do manage it as a non-motorized, closed area and they parked where it was signed as such.”

While following or ignoring the law is obviously up to every individual, riding snowmobiles in the closed area was dangerous for more reasons than the possibility of a citation.

Those who have spent time in the high mountains in winter know the most dangerous slopes to cross are often those that have seen virtually no use. These are the open mountainsides where the snowpack is affected by a huge variety of conditions that can create a deadly situation.

When early snow falls on the still-warm earth, it is often eroded from beneath as moisture is sucked up through the snowpack and into the cold dry atmosphere. What’s left at ground level is a lacey layer of crystals, often a foot or more deep, upon which the rest of the snowpack sits.

This condition, known as depth hoar, is common in the northern Rockies and is often experienced by backcountry travelers when the snowpack suddenly settles with a muffled “whumpf.” On flat ground, it’s no big deal…just an early warning to savvy winter travelers that dangerous conditions exist. But when it happens on steep slopes, the entire snowpack can plummet downhill, snapping off trees and sweeping over everything in its path—including snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers.

A similar condition can be created when sudden hot weather followed by a freeze turns the top layers of snow to ice. When more snow falls or is blown onto these icy layers, the entire snowpack literally sits on a steep ice rink, just waiting for a trigger to release its tenuous grip.

When snowmobilers venture into non-motorized areas, as did the unfortunate young men from Townsend, they dramatically escalate the chances of disaster. In areas where motorized use is allowed, the slopes are continually being “cut” by other snowmobilers, which compacts the snowpack and releases the enormous energy stored in a unified field of snow, thus significantly reducing the chances of large, destructive or deadly avalanches.

Flathead National Forest officials say they will increase patrols and fine illegal backcountry snowmobilers up to $5,000. But Teegarden, speaking for the Helena National Forest, says she isn’t sure if any tickets will be written, telling reporters: “This is a tragedy and I would hope we would be sensitive to the families.”

Somehow, Teegarden’s sensitivity seems a bit misplaced, and sends the entirely wrong message. If someone piles into a fatal head-on by driving the wrong way on the interstate, the Highway Patrol is not likely to decline to issue citations just because they died. And as anyone who has ever performed avalanche rescue operations can tell you, it’s no fun to stand at the bottom of a slope, knowing that the conditions for avalanches are ripe as you search for victims—especially when those victims went where they weren’t supposed to go.

The tragic deaths, the increasing use of non-motorized areas by snowmobilers, and the obvious lack of a unified policy by the Forest Service all point to an obvious conclusion. It’s time to get serious about enforcing motorized trespass into designated non-motorized areas. A $5,000 fine would certainly get the attention of the scofflaws—as would confiscating their machines.

Even more important, the Forest Service must honor its end of the bargain. When user groups sit down to hammer out agreements, or Congress designates wilderness areas, they expect the conditions of their use to be upheld and enforced. To do less makes a mockery of our laws and the process of negotiation, and needlessly endangers those who recover the victims.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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