Snowkiters fly above wilderness rules...for now

Management, timber harvest, roadless issues

Snowkiters fly above wilderness rules...for now

Postby ~jeff~ » Tue Apr 14, 2009 1:47 pm

Snowkiters at Bald Butte flying above Forest Service wilderness rules for now

Steve O'Shea of Bend zips across a snowfield near Ball Butte west of Bend, pulled along on his snowboard
by a 12-meter kite. Snowkiters harness the wind with nylon kites to rip across the snow on skis or snowboards.

The Oregonian
Sunday April 12, 2009
BEND -- Three years ago, Chris Sabo first saw the colorful kites twisting above the snowy contours of Ball Butte.

The Deschutes National Forest trails specialist was patrolling the boundary of the Three Sisters Wilderness west of Bend on a snowmobile when he came across a group of snowkiters, who harness the wind to pull them across the snow on skis or snowboards.

"I do remember the big question was, 'Is this legal technically?'" recalled Sabo.

That question could soon lead to one of the first changes to the U.S. Forest Service's wilderness regulations in more than two decades.

"It has rapidly made its way up to the Washington office" of the Forest Service, said Shane Jeffries, Bend-Fort Rock District Ranger in Bend and Sabo's supervisor.

The small sport of snowkiting is about a decade old in Oregon, but it's growing. Congressionally designated wilderness areas have been around since the 1960s. The recent intersection of the two demonstrates how government agencies react as the way we play on public lands continues to change.

"Periodically new things pop up on us that we just can't envision," said Sabo.


It happened with hang gliding and, more recently, Geocaching -- a GPS-driven treasure hunt popular on public lands. Now it seems it's snowkiting's turn to bow to the bureaucracy.

The sport is basically the winter version of the colorful kiteboarders you may have seen ripping along and above the Columbia River in the gorge.

Snowkiting first arrived in Oregon thanks to pioneers such as Aaron Sales, a Hood River resident and editor of Kiteboarding magazine. Kiteboarders' feet are strapped to a short board, and they wear a harness around their waist that is connected to a control bar, affixed with lines leading to a parabolic nylon kite from 5 to 12 meters in size.

Using the wind as their engine, they carve across the river, launching high into the air off wind-formed waves.

Sales first tried doing the same thing on snow with his snowboard on Mount Hood's Palmer Glacier in 1998, when the sport was gaining ground in Europe but still essentially unheard of in Oregon. Today, Sales estimates there are at least 200 snowkiters in the state.

Their biggest challenge: Finding somewhere to kite. Snowkiters need large, unobstructed snowfields. Frozen lakes work, but the terrain is monotonous. More mountainous areas above treeline, areas like Ball Butte west of Bend, offer excitement and challenge.

"It's above the treeline. It's rolling hills. It's everything you need. It works in any wind direction. And it's just absolutely beautiful," said Tim Carlson, a member of the Bend Kite Crew.

At the butte, a bare plain slopes up to a rocky peak. Snowkiters on boards or skis can carve on the flats or loft huge aerial stunts, drifting slowly back to earth, sometimes hundreds of feet away.

The problem: Mountainous areas above the treeline also happen to be where land designated as wilderness often is. That's the case with Ball Butte, which is just inside the Three Sisters Wilderness near Mount Bachelor.

This winter, Sabo told Carlson and others that they would no longer be allowed at the butte and that he may even have to ticket them in the future. Yet a mile away, just across the wilderness boundary, snowmobilers are free to gun their machines to the top of Moon Mountain.

So what rule decrees that the public can tear up one slope with a two-stroke engine and can't use the wind to ride up another nearby? The 1964 Wilderness Act does. It says you can't use motorized craft and "other form of mechanized transport" in wilderness.

But that's pretty broad. The Forest Service manual gets into details about just what mechanized transport means, including "any contrivance ... that provides a mechanical advantage to the user and that is powered by a living or non-living power source."

While the agency's rules seem to disallow snowkiting because the kite provides "mechanical advantage," they may not be specific enough, said Terry Knupp, Wilderness Program leader for the U.S. Forest Service. So the agency is looking to amend its rules, posting a note in the Federal Register as early as this summer and then going into a lengthy public process to explicitly ban snowkiting.

"It's been over 20 years, I think, since we changed the existing regulations, so that tells you something. It takes quite a big issue," said Susan Sater, northwest wilderness program manager for the agency.

That change could exclude kiters from the more than 35 million acres of wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and Congress recently passed a bill that added more than 200,000 acres of new wilderness to Oregon, from the deserts east of Bend to the Coast Range.

But there's more to the debate than the definition of "mechanical advantage."

It gets to our ideas of just what, and who, wilderness is for. And the emphasis should be on preserving "wilderness character," said Bill Worf, who as a Forest Service employee helped write the first rules for wilderness in the 1960s and went on to found Wilderness Watch in 1989.

"Since there wasn't snowkiting even dreamed of at this time, that would come under a new impact that would change the wilderness character," said Worf. "There's nothing wrong with snowkiting, but it shouldn't be in wilderness."

Kiters consider their sport low-impact, green recreation. And they are organizing to lobby the agency to preserve access, much like cycling groups do now. Sales recently organized U.S. Snowkite Association to give his sport a voice.

Meanwhile, Jeffries, the district ranger, said he'd like to work with kiters to find some nonwilderness areas in the forest for their sport.

But Sales and other kiters say they've been looking for years, and Ball Butte is the only reasonably accessible place in Oregon.

"It's very frustrating to have these locations that are so dear to us taken away," said Sales.
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