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U.S. Court rules in favor of copter skiers

Published November 21, 2006 1:54 am

Judge says heli-skiing firm may continue its drop-offs in the Cottonwood canyons
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A federal judge has ruled that Wasatch Powderbird Guides can continue to plop backcountry skiers into the Cottonwood canyons.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart said Monday that the U.S. Forest Service complied with federal environmental laws when it renewed the heli-skiing company's permit in 2004, rejecting a challenge by the environmental group Save Our Canyons.

"We felt like our analysis was pretty thorough and comprehensive," Loren Kroenke, Salt Lake District Ranger for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said Monday. "We were hopeful going into this, but sometimes you can be surprised."

Save Our Canyons had argued that the Forest Service had acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner in renewing the heli-skiing permit, which the company has held for three decades.

The agency, the lawsuit said, had not taken the required "hard look" at data analyzing how many cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts now use the canyons' backcountry areas.

Nor did the Forest Service analyze the economic viability of Wasatch Powderbirds, as it promised it would do for the 2004 permit review, it claimed.

Stewart rejected virtually all of the environmental group's arguments, ruling that the Forest Service had done its due diligence.

"The Forest Service took the 'hard look,' required, solicited comments and considered a reasonable range of alternatives," he wrote.

The judge also ruled that the agency, in analyzing the company's "operational efficiencies," met the forest planning goal of assessing "a range of recreational opportunities" in the canyons.

Save Our Canyons board member David Witherspoon said he was disappointed with the decision, but not surprised.

"We were hoping to see some interesting reasoning [in the opinion], but we really didn't see any," Witherspoon said. "Basically, the judge just agreed with the Forest Service."

Witherspoon was unsure if Save Our Canyons would appeal the decision.

"But obviously, if we had found the Forest Service's reasoning compelling, we wouldn't have filed this in the first place," he said.

jbaird@sltrib.com