It's early December in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the first monster storm of the season is moving in from the northwest. Soon this place will be jammed with skiers: fat-board riders tearing up Jackson Hole Mountain Resort; hootin', hollerin' Texans cruising the groomers at Snow King; earn-your-turns alpine tourers covering every skin track and boot pack at the top of Teton Pass. And then there's the heli-skiing contingent, a small, wealthy, and devoted collection of skiers who pay $850 a day to fly with outfitter Jon Shick's High Mountain Heli-Skiing. Lean, gray, and 58 years old, Shick will send them to the top of 10,000-foot Observation Peak, 12 miles southwest of Jackson, and point them down its undulating, three-pitch bowl of shin-deep powder. He'll instruct his pilots to land on northwest-facing Squirt City so his clients can eat up 2,000 vertical feet of 35- to 40-degree untracked, old-growth tree skiing. Conditions permitting, HMH will airlift clients to the most memorable runs they'll ever know. But if you ask Shick, next season could be HMH's last.
Shick is embroiled in a land-use battle with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental consortium that claims he's been operating in breach of a federal law and degrading fragile wilderness. Shick stands to lose more than half of his 300,000-acre permit area, including classics such as Squirt City. The other terrain, he says, is mediocre at best: too flat and flaccid to attract his best clients. High Mountain Heli, says Tim Preso, a lawyer for the coalition, operates in "the most intact natural ecosystem remaining in the lower 48 states – among the last refuges for wildlife such as grizzly bears, lynx, wolves, and wolverines that are sensitive to motorized disturbance."
As we roll through Jackson in Shick's Suburban, he launches into a tirade. "These so-called environmentalists have nothing better to do," he says. "They'll say they're just trying to save nature. But don't believe them. They want to weaken me until I'm broke and tired and forced to go out of business."
The debate is bigger than Shick's company, though, and Shick isn't the only U.S. operator fighting to stay alive. Of six major heli ops in the lower 48, all but one of them is, or has been, entangled in some sort of financially threatening land-use battle. In southern Colorado, Telluride Helitrax is negotiating with environmental groups over a Wilderness Area (WA) proposal. Wilderness Areas are guaranteed protection from logging, mining, and recreational use of mechanized vehicles. The company could lose its terrain in the steep and jagged San Juans, arguably the finest backcountry skiing in the U.S. In Washington, North Cascade Heli-Skiing just managed to talk its way into a new 10-year permit, but the company fears that a WA proposal looms on its slopes, too. And in Utah's Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, a WA proposal is under consideration that could kill Snowbird-based Wasatch Powderbird Guides' operation.
Sigi Vogl, an operator at Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides and the executive director of Heli Ski U.S., a loose coalition of North American owner-operators, is convinced that the industry is doomed. "There could be no helicopter-skiing in the United States in 20 years," he says. "None."
Any Jacksonite who has ever carved a turn knows something about the High Mountain Heli saga, and they all get emotional about it. "I've lost a lot of friends over the issue," a heli-ski opponent and avid backcountry skier told me over the phone. "It's better if we don't talk."
At Trio, a trendy eatery downtown, a 50-something man at the end of the bar gave me his take. The "greenies' " way of thinking, he said in a furious whisper while glancing over his shoulder, "is like Nazism!" He then described heli-skiing as a veritable God-given right. "Jon Shick is a good guy, and he's entitled to be in the Palisades," the man said.
To an outsider, the feverish debate over heli-skiing's impact on the environment might raise a simple question: Don't greenies have more important matters to attend to? Sure, those Bell 407s and A-Stars can choke the atmosphere with jet-fuel fumes and muck up streambeds with runoff. But shouldn't the enviros go after bigger offenders, like the oil, timber, or snowmobile industries? As Missoula, Montana–based Paul Shively, a senior regional representative of the Sierra Club, wrote in an e-mail, "Aside from the increased carbon footprint, it's a smaller environmental impact compared to the push for more ski area developments. Most heli-skiing operates at elevations and the time of year where there just aren't that many critters around."