Public Comment Period opens for reevaluation of Utah Powderbird Heli Permit

Little Cottonwood Canyon, part of Utah Powderbird’s current flying zone. [Photo] Pierce Martin

The daily humming of helicopters has been an accepted part of life for backcountry skiers in the greater Salt Lake City area, but that may change soon. The Salt Lake Ranger District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest  has opened a public comment period, running from June 10 to July 10, to reevaluate the permit for Utah Powderbird (UPB)—a helicopter-skiing operation based in Little Cottonwood Canyon—that has been unchanged since 2004. Leading the charge in this request for reevaluation is the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA), an organization concerned with the impact helicopters have on the quality of the backcountry skiing experience in the Tri-Canyon area encompassing Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and Millcreek Canyon.

Until recently, the WBA assumed they had until 2019—when the current UPB permit expires—to craft a game plan for reevaluation the permit’s language and guidelines. But the deadline shifted when the Forest Service announced recently that they were going to issue what’s referred to as a “special exclusion,” that allows for permits to be reinstated with no comment period if no permit changes are being made.

“We found out about a month ago that the permit was going to be reissued this summer, so we realized we had to be ready a lot sooner than we previously thought,” said Chris Adams, WBA Board of Directors member. “I think the comment period should provide the impetus for the Forest Service to review the permits, because things have changed since 2004, and if they just reissue it in its current form until 2029 without public comment, it will have been 25 years since the permit has been examined.”

The driving force behind the WBA’s desire to make permit changes is the increased backcountry traffic in the Tri-Canyon area and how this growing human-powered recreation conflicts with the heli traffic from Utah Powderbird. Currently, the Powderbird’s permit limits heli access to the canyons on Sundays and Mondays during the winter, with the rest of the week being fair game for heli drops. But even this two-day limitation has an exception for homerun drops—when skiers are dropped into a line in Little Cottonwood Canyon for their last run of the day.

“We are not opposed to the Powderbird having a permit, and we are certainly not saying that backcountry skiing is superior to heli skiing,” says Adams. “We want to continue to discuss how the helicopters can fly in the Tri-Canyons. For example, they can’t fly in the Canyons on Sundays and Mondays, like I said, but they can do homeruns in Little Cottonwood on those days, so they are technically still flying.”

Adams notes that this technicality makes a difference in an already heavily used backcountry zone. In 2015, the WBA installed trail counters at seven trailheads and found that an average of 350 people a day backcountry ski in this zone. And with the added traffic skyward, managing crowds can become difficult. But Jared Grant, Utah Powderbird General Manager sees it another way.

“By providing homeruns, we can actually mitigate some of the flights that are required to go into Little Cottonwood Canyon,” says Grant. “Instead of flying in six loads to our heli pad at the end of the day, we can fly people to a more remote location and have them ski down. This requires only one or two flights to the pad instead of six or seven.  It’s a mitigation measure to alleviate additional noise and air traffic in the area.”

Another measure that the WBA would like included in the Powderbird permit is a requirement for UPB to give daily flight schedules on their website so tourers can plan their days and zones accordingly. Powderbird already notifies the public of their general flight plan online, but WBA is looking for specifics.

“They do currently list whether or not they are going to fly on their website, but a lot of times they will just say ‘White Pine’ or ‘Cardiff,’” says Adams. “Cardiff is a pretty big area, so one thing we would prefer is for them to say, ‘We’re going to fly and land in George’s, a specific area in Cardiff.’ That way tourers know to stay away from George’s on that day.”

These are the issues that will be hashed out if the Forest Service receives sufficient comments to warrant a public meeting where stakeholders can voice their opinions.

“During discussions with the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, they expressed a desire to participate in the public involvement process, and based on this interest, and potential interest from other users, we made the decision to accept public comments on the proposal,” says Dave Whittekiend, Forest Supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. But Whittekiend is unsure about whether the comments will alter the permit renewal process. “We will consider the content of the comments to determine whether we have public meetings and increase the scope and intensity of the analysis.”

To get to that secondary level of review, Adams stresses the importance of civil and constructive feedback during the comment period. “We don’t think that comments ranting about how Powderbird are the worst thing in the world will be productive,” he says. “We want comments that describe the change that has happened with more users and how this permit needs to be updated to acknowledge the increase in the backcountry population since 2004.”

And if Whittekiend and his colleagues find the comments compelling, the next stage of the permit review will commence. Until then, send comments before July 10 to comments-intermtn-wasatch-cache-saltlake@fs.fed.us.

Comments

  1. Rob Voye says:

    i am a supporter of powderbird guides and believe their permit should be renewed

    • Melinda McIlwaie says:

      I have toured in the Wasatch for over 30 years. The swell in users on the ground in the Central Wasatch is undeniable.
      Currently WPG can fly up to two birds in a day and subsequently ski a half dozen drainages at once. The Central Wasatch
      is only 6 square miles a lot of which is already taken up by ski resorts. When one calls WPG to find out where they are headed
      it is the same litany of the Northern Powder circuit with no specifics. The inequity here in is that people with money get to use up a limited resource with out any regard for those of us on the ground. The only people who support WPG are people who have the bucks to use them. If you want to heli-ski go to B.C. or Alaska where there is plenty of room.

  2. Danny Bradley says:

    Skiing the backcountry in the Wasatch has changed a lot over the past 13 years. It is time to reevaluate the powder bird heli permit. This will help to ensure the safety of thousands of backcountry skiers in the area.

    Thanks for taking the time to address these concerns.

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