A Columbia Falls-based guide company has been issued a temporary special-use permit to lead backcountry ski trips near the Izaak Walton Inn in the Flathead National Forest.
The permit awarded to Glacier Adventure Guides applies only to the 2017-18 ski season. It will allow the outfitter 200 user days to lead trips in portions of the Essex, Dickey and Paola creek drainages outside the Great Bear Wilderness boundaries. The permit is only for backcountry skiing — it does not authorize motorized guiding.
“Over the last couple of years there has been some pressure from the national Forest Service to explore different ways to open up sustainable special uses on national forests,” said M.J. Crandall, district recreation lead at the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District. “There is a bit of a change throughout the Forest Service to take a harder look and we are responding to that.”
Crandall said interest had been expressed in similar permits in the past, but the proposal from Greg Fortin, owner of Glacier Adventure Guides, was the only one submitted in the past year.
“We may have denied temporary permits previously, but we are kind of making a change right now,” Crandall said.
Forest officials will observe the impacts of the ski tours on the forest and listen for comments from the public to determine if the use should continue in the future. He said future permits would only be awarded through an open, competitive process that would allow all interested parties to apply, Crandall said.
In 2011, the University of Montana performed a needs assessment that polled members of the public and the business community and identified a desire for more commercial guided backcountry ski opportunities. Crandall cited that study as additional incentive for the agency to approve the temporary permit.
The permit will conform to a standard temporary permit land-use fee, meaning Glacier Adventure Guides will pay $600 for 200 user days, Crandall said. One user day is the equivalent of one person going out for one day, so a group of eight people on a day-long guided tour would use a total of eight user days.
Fortin said he plans on limiting tour groups to six participants and two guides. He said he has been working with the Forest Service for the past 12 years to obtain a permit like this one, and he was humbled his firm was chosen for the new opportunity.
“In general, I think backcountry skiing is increasing exponentially in our area,” Fortin said.
Glacier Adventure Guides has been working with the Izaak Walton Inn on various ventures over the years, and had been noticing increasing numbers of people showing up at the trailhead to embark on backcountry ski trips, Fortin said. His hope is to teach people new to the activity to do it safely.
“When we are out riding we hope that people can take away more skills than when they came and learn how to use the equipment and learn to make better judgments while they are out there,” Fortin said.
The partnership with the Izaak Walton Inn will be pivotal to the success of the new venture, Fortin said. The historic inn has proposed offering vehicle shuttles equipped with tracks to the head of Essex or Dickey creeks, an elevation of about 4,500 feet, where backcountry skiers can begin their tour.
“It’s really a unique opportunity. It’s not mandatory that people take that shuttle, but it really shortens the trip to the heads of those drainages,” Fortin said. “Sometimes it takes a couple of different businesses to make a project worthwhile, and to get people out to Essex we really rely heavily on the Inn. Economically, it will help with their winter and it will help with mine.”