Will Bridger Bowl Ever Open Its Gates?

Will Bridger Bowl Ever Open Its Gates?

England, Mike
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Fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost famously penned; but then again, Frost didn’t ski. The fence in this case – the marked boundary between Bridger Bowl and the wide-open National Forest backcountry – has created far more ire than affability in recent years. On the one side are the skiers and boarders who want access to public land; on the other, Bridger Bowl and the Forest Service, who aren’t quite ready to grant that access. The conflict has all the makings of a full-blown political snafu, with mudslinging, fact distorting, and crafty circumlocution on both ends. But after years of fierce squabbling between rope-ducking locals and border-enforcing ski patrollers, the question remains: Will Bridger Bowl ever open its gates?

"There’s no easy answer to that," says Faye Johnson, ski patrol director at Bridger Bowl. "If there were, we’d have done it a long time ago." Bridger would like to provide access to the backcountry, she says, but there are a few big concerns, the foremost being safety. "Though we have no legal obligation to anyone outside Bridger’s boundaries," she explains, "still, we have a moral stand. We don’t want people getting hurt." According to Johnson, the nature of the terrain at Bridger is unique in that out-of bounds access points, if installed, would open up directly into avalanche zones. This isn’t the case with other open-boundary resorts, she says, where intermediate skiers can glide across wide ridgelines and open glades before committing to more extreme, hazardous terrain.

Nancy Halstrom, recreation coordinator for the Forest Service, agrees. "People have certain expectations at a ski hill," she says, citing avalanche bombing, well-marked trails, and ski patrol rescue capabilities, "but in the backcountry the conditions are very different." And since Bridger Bowl is not required to assist backcountry skiers in the event of an accident – their coverage area includes only in-bounds terrain – responsibility would fall to the Gallatin County Search and Rescue team, which, she says, is not currently equipped to perform high-elevation backcountry rescues. So there’s much more to consider before giving out-of-bounds users the green light.

That’s all well and good, says Rusty Squire, a local Bozeman skier and former member of the US Ski team, "but politics is what’s really holding them back. Big Sky has lift-access terrain that’s way more dangerous than Bridger’s out-of-bounds." Squire, who grew up skiing the Bridger Ridge in the midseventies, thinks fear of litigation and good old-fashioned obstinacy is at the root of the issue. "Along came the attorneys in the 1980s, and now everyone is afraid of doing anything to enhance their liability." The risks are there, he readily admits – he lost a brother-in-law to an avalanche a few years back – but that’s beside the point. "People ought to be given a choice," he says, "and right now, neither Bridger Bowl nor the Forest Service is willing to make the move politically. And as a result, who gets hosed? The skier." For Squire, it all boils down to this: should Bridger Bowl be able to deny the public access to their own land?

Well, yes and no. Contrary to popular belief, Bridger Bowl can’t just open its boundaries, wave a flag, and scream, "Have at it, backcountry junkies!" Bridger operates on a special-use permit, not a lease. Each year, Bridger must submit an operating plan to the Forest Service, which includes a description of rules regarding backcountry access. The Forest Service reviews the plan, and either approves or denies it. So the decision, then, is ultimately up to the Forest Service. Randy Elliot, Bridger Bowl’s tight-lipped mountain manager, emphasizes this point. "All I can say," he says, "is that the Forest Service has it closed – it’s not us." Well, that’s true, technically, but here’s the rub: if Bridger were to submit an operating plan that called for open boundaries, it would push the issue and force the Forest Service’s hand.

What does the Forest Service think about that? "We’re in the process of evaluating that issue," says Halstrom, "but I can tell you this: we’re not fundamentally opposed to open boundaries at Bridger Bowl. We just need to hash a few things out." Bridger Bowl already allows backcountry skiers to park in their parking lot and hike into the backcountry, she points out, and unlike the upper mountain, the parking lot is owned by Bridger Bowl. “Bridger has a history of generosity, of cooperation with backcountry users," she says, "and we want any decision about opening its boundaries to be in the same spirit.”

Until that happens, though, there is little hope for the forlorn backcountry snowgazer. As more and more ski resorts open their boundaries – Jackson Hole being the latest and most publicized – Bozeman’s local skiers grow increasingly anxious. Even Johnson acknowledges the trend. "We’re kind of behind the times," she admits. “But I think things are going to change.”
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