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Backcountry guides frustrated by Forest Service decision to pause permit program

Nov 17, 2023, 6:10 PM | Updated: 7:20 pm

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Local backcountry guides are expressing frustration with a U.S. Forest Service district ranger decision they say will kill much of their business this winter, because the guides won’t be able to conduct avalanche courses or take clients up to the most popular spots on the edge of the Salt Lake Valley.

The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest explained that the Salt Lake Ranger District made the decision due to a staffing shortage.

Big Cottonwood Canyon is beginning to build its base layer, as fresh snow falls and ski resorts open for the season. The backcountry, however, is still pretty scarce. On Friday, climbers ascended a bare, rocky route right above the road.

“We’re waiting for enough snow to come, so we can start skiing,” Todd Passey, co-owner of Wasatch Mountain Guides, said. They’re gearing up to start business for the winter in December.

Locals and tourists alike access that deep terrain with guides like Todd and his wife, Winslow Passey.

“They hire us to provide safety for them to go into the backcountry, so they can experience the beauty that the Wasatch has in a safe way,” Todd Passey explained. He said Wasatch Mountain Guides also run avalanche courses, which are always in demand.

The couple and their business partner Willy Benegas aim to teach clients new techniques, improve their terrain knowledge, and encourage responsible stewardship and safety on public lands.

Wasatch Mountain Guides offers both tours and avalanche courses in the backcountry. (Courtesy of Wasatch Mountain Guides)

But come the new year, they won’t be able to give people that experience or carry out avalanche safety courses on Forest Service land up Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons.

Passey said when he tried to enter a lottery to re-up his temporary special use permit with the Forest Service, he found out they were putting the program on pause this winter.

“They’re not going to renew those short-term permits. So, we don’t have a permit to operate in the Central Wasatch, which is horrible,” he said. “It’s leaving a lot of people without options.”

Benegas said several companies got together, realizing they’d lose a huge chunk of winter business. Benegas said there are six or seven companies who rely on those temporary permits.

“That’s extremely stressful,” he said. “I mean, I still have to pay my mortgage and pay everything. And not knowing what is going to happen, is terrifying.”

David Wittekiend, forest supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest said the Salt Lake Ranger District decided in July to make the pause because of staffing issues. He said the Forest Service has the discretion to decide whether or not to issue the temporary special use permits in every ranger district. The permits are divvied out based on a random lottery drawing.

“We didn’t have people who could process, administer, and build those permits,” Wittekiend said. “So we felt because they’re discretionary, that we would not issue those for this winter.”

Wittekiend explained that some guides with long-term permits will still be able to operate, just not the rest who rely on the temporary permits. They’re hoping to get the temporary permit program back up and running before summer, depending on hiring new staff.

“We intend to continue the program. We do value the program, and we can see the need,” he said.

Wittekiend said he knows folks are frustrated, but said there are still a lot of options out there for people to get the training they need to be safe in the backcountry.
“We always emphasize that these are temporary days,” he said. “They’re not to build a permanent business around there, more to supplement the work that people already have going on.”

The Forest Service said it hopes to bring the temporary permit system back by the summer (Courtesy of Wasatch Mountain Guides)

The Passeys and Benegas said their issues with the temporary system date back several years to when it was first rolled out in 2016. They are planning to meet with the Forest Service next week, hoping to find a way to move forward that involves more permanent solutions.

Without any business up Big or Little Cottonwood starting January 1, they each sought other options.

Benegas will instead spend the winter guiding in Antarctica.

“I just went for what is more secure and sadly, that for me is more secure to go and travel all the way to the edge of the world, than my backyard,” he said.

Todd and Winslow Passey plan to utilize small chunks of private property, and they secured a temporary permit down in Pleasant Grove. Still, they said their business will suffer.

“It’s not the Central Wasatch,” Todd said. “It’s not where, you know, our local clients are and want to ski. It’s not where most visitors are going.”

Winslow believes the backcountry will also take a hit with less guiding options.

“Without the access to guides, and avalanche courses, and continuing education, it makes it riskier,” she said. “I feel like that people will not get the education they need or the support they need to be able to go into the backcountry safely.”

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Backcountry guides frustrated by Forest Service decision to pause permit program