The War on Heli-Skiing

Mj 618_348_the war on heli skiing
Roger Phillips / Idaho Statesman / Getty Images

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.” 

Shick puts it to me in blunter terms. “Yeah, the green groups have bigger fish to fry – just not here in Jackson Hole. These people just need something to do to justify living here.”

But local activists such as Bruce Hayse, a doctor and board member of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, believe that there’s no environmental victory too small. “I grew up in the rural West. I even built roads for the Forest Service many years ago,” Hayse tells me in his rustic home near downtown. “Back then, I used to think there was plenty of wilderness to go around. I was wrong. Wilderness is disappearing a lot faster than heli-skiing. To save wilderness, you have to fight a lot of battles, however small. Each achievement can set a precedent and add up over time.”

Shick’s troubles date to 1984, 10 years after he began ferrying hotdoggers into the backcountry. Back then, Shick was a guide who was intimate with the Palisades, a 180,000-acre portion of the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National forests. Steep enough to make an out-of-towner feel like the John Holmes of ski porn, the Palisades are low-angle enough not to scare him back to his corner office; they’re also home to mountain goats, raptors, grizzlies, and the occasional wolverine. That year, Congress declared the Palisades a Wilderness Study Area; the designation meant helicopters could stay, as long as the Palisades’ “wilderness character” and “opportunities for solitude” weren’t diminished. At the time the Forest Service allowed High Mountain Heli about 65 skier days. (A skier day is one skier on one day.) Each time HMH’s permit came up for renewal, the Forest Service let the company fly more clients, not once claiming that heli-skiing degraded the Palisades. “They gave us room to grow the business according to demand,” Shick tells me. “They knew we weren’t doing any harm.” By 1999, business seemed unstoppable, and Shick took out a loan and bought into the company. At the time of purchase, HMH’s permit had grown to almost 500 skier days per season – about 100 days in the air, split between two choppers.

“That can’t be legal,” Tim Preso recalls thinking when local environmental groups informed him of the Forest Service’s generosity with High Mountain Heli. 

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition demanded that the Forest Service conduct an environmental impact study of the Palisades WSA. Issued in 2006, the report declared that Shick was doing no harm. According to the analysis, HMH’s thwap-thwapping choppers and whoop-whooping skiers weren’t making wildlife run for cover. In fact, the study said that all was exactly as it had been back in 1984, when the company was still in its infancy. As Shick says, “Skiers need a deep snowpack that’s way above tree line. Goats don’t eat snow.”

Greater Yellowstone and Tim Preso weren’t having it. “The Forest Service painted a false picture of the heli-ski permit’s impacts,” Preso tells me. “They made it look like [the increase in] skier days was far less dramatic than was really the case.” So he and Greater Yellowstone sued the Forest Service in district court, and won. The judge noted that High Mountain Heli had an “impeccable operating history.” He admitted that “the court has struggled over this case.” But, said the judge, “According to Congress, the opportunities for solitude that existed in 1984 must be maintained.” 

Shick was devastated. Scaling back to 65 skier days, he said, would kill his business overnight. The judge allowed the parties to strike a deal: Rather than die a sudden death, HMH would decrease its skier numbers over the next five years; by 2011, the operation would be back to 1984 levels. Shick saw the proposal as the lesser of two evils. “I had two choices,” he tells me. “I could go out of business immediately, or I could stay afloat for another season or two and fight the agreement.” 

To heli-ski operations in the U.S., Shick’s court defeat was ominous. If the Jackson greenies could beat Shick, what was to stop others from hauling them in front of a judge? So in 2006 the group hired Craig Pattee, president of Dutko Worldwide, a D.C. lobbying firm with a tremendous client list, from health care to homeland security. As an influence man for the heli-ski business, Pattee’s job is to convince lawmakers that heli-skiing is a legitimate and harmless use of public lands. As a representative for Shick and High Mountain Heli, Pattee is hoping to initiate a “legislative fix” that would “re-open” the Wyoming Wilderness Act. 

To hear Pattee tell it, the enviros – in Jackson Hole and elsewhere – are using those cuddly wolverines as pawns. Really, he says, “this is about social preferences and nothing more.” People who oppose heli-skiing “think their form of recreation is more righteous. They want to impose their lifestyle on everyone else.” 

The opposition scoffs at such a notion. As Hayse says, “It’s a matter of giving nature the special protection it deserves.”

“Study after study has shown no ill effect [of heli-skiing] on the environment,” Pattee says. “The heli industry goes out of its way not to come close to wildlife . . . but you can practically give a mountain goat a haircut before it notices a helicopter.” Forest Service land is the “Land of Many Uses,” he adds. “We just want a chunk of land where heli-skiing is allowed. The small area where heli-skiing is allowed is hardly pristine,” he says. “Anyone wanting a moment of solitude isn’t going to find it in the Wilderness Study Area.” 

The man’s got a point. You can’t go 100 yards in the Palisades without hearing the whine of snowmobiles, which operate in extreme excess of 1984 levels. So why not go after the sled-heads? Because thousands of Wyoming residents get their kicks on snowmobiles, and the right to use those machines on public land is championed by a well-organized lobby with ties to big oil and Detroit. In other words, enviros have to start somewhere, and Shick is the easiest target. 

As Hayse tells me, “We’re trying to make sure the Forest Service enforces the Wyoming Wilderness Act. Enforcing the number of heli-ski days is the first step, and the easiest one. Who would you go after?”

Shick is unable to fly me up for a closer look. I wanted to gauge his potential eco-impact – and the powder – myself, but the valley has been socked in all week. So I load my alpine touring gear into the rental van, drive to the top of Teton Pass, and join a friend for a human-powered, three-hour skin-and-ski tour. We head south, toward the edge of the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, and skin to the top of Edelweiss Bowl before skiing down its backside – 700 vertical feet of low-angle, boot-deep powder. We make a skin track back up the hill and scope the view from the top. I imagine the shameless joy I’d take at hopping in a Bell 407, getting dropped on a peak, and being told to leave my mark on a legendary heli-ski run like Squirt City. It’s easy to understand why this chunk of land provides so much business for Shick and why it inspires environmentalists to fight for its preservation. But it’s hard not to wonder, too, that by freezing out heli-skiers, the greenies could be making enemies of natural environmental allies.

On May 7, 2007, Shick filed his appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, but on December 26, the court threw it out. When I call Shick for a response, he sounds surprisingly Zen about the defeat. “Well, I guess I’ll go back to the Forest Service and see if they can grant me permits in new terrain,” he says. “And then I’m sure someone will come out of the woodwork and oppose whatever we do.”

As for the disputed Palisades area, he tells me, “I can afford to fly there for two more seasons, so that’s what I’ll do. In fact, the snowpack is great, we’re expecting a storm, and we’re flying there today.”

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