Don't reject snowmachine use outright

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2007

Just when I thought our wonderful little community had fully focused all of its abilities and attentions on the panoply of controversial issues near and dear to us, the question of snowmachine access to the Eaglecrest Ski Area has arisen to provide a new battleground for passionate Juneau residents.

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As in many of the other debates, I have friends on both sides of the issue. Also, as in those conversations, I think reason dictates one outcome over another. Although I know some who read these words will disagree with me, I humbly ask them to consider what I have to say.

I am an avid skier, and I spend just about as much time at Eaglecrest during the winter months as I possibly can. I was born in Anchorage, but my parents didn't push me down a slope at Alyeska as a boy, instead choosing to encourage me to enjoy the more physically demanding rigors of Nordic skiing (which I don't do very much anymore) with my family. I didn't even begin to learn to downhill ski until I moved to Juneau to work for the Legislature 16 years ago.

I first went on the last day of the season with borrowed garb and rented gear, and was only goaded into going to the top of the mountain because a dear friend told me there was a full-service bar at the Eagle's Nest. It's not often that my being gullible has resulted in as blissful an outcome.

My first ride down the mountain was arduous, even terrifying, and many friends alongside whom I now ski got to stop and laugh at my novice moves. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything: I fell in love that day with a mountain and a sport that are integral to my happiness. I may not have held a pass as long as some who have come out strongly opposing the concept of even considering snowmachine access, but I know that no one can rightfully claim to love Eaglecrest any more than I do.

I know I am not alone in treasuring the almost incalculable way Eaglecrest enhances our quality of life here in Juneau. When we have an outstanding year, such as the one that's just come to a conclusion, it is the sort of thing one boasts about to friends Outside.

The community manifests its support for Eaglecrest by dedicating sales-tax revenues to offset operation costs, especially crucial in lean years. Numerous volunteers worked hard to collect more than $150,000 as a community match to public funds for the building of a new chairlift, which speaks volumes about how this town supports our ski area. But when I use the first-person plural possessive adjective to modify the phrase "quality of life," I'm assuming that those who have never skied and those who don't even have a close relative or friend who skis, enjoy the fruits of community support for Eaglecrest. Perhaps their lives are made better because I'm so much happier on a Monday when I've skied to my heart's nearly insatiable content during the weekend.

But are the nonskiers wrong to seek a slightly more tangible benefit for their tax dollars?

The snowmachine-access proposal that brought out so many people on Tuesday night to testify has two components. One is to allow machines on the west side of the mountain only after the season. The other is to allow access whenever conditions permit just outside the area boundary on the east side of the mountain.

I understand why current users might not want to encounter snowmachines when skiing, and the during-season part of the plan floated by the Juneau Snowmobile Club might lead to such simultaneous-use conflicts. But the post-season option would only affect those who hike, and then only those who hike the west side of the mountain. This doesn't seem to me to be an unreasonable thing at least to consider. Does one's right to hike after a full season of chairlift access really trump the interests of people who are currently excluded from using this public asset altogether?

I am always eager to see Eaglecrest investigate ways to broaden its economic base, as it supports the long-term viability of the enterprise. I don't want the Eaglecrest board or staff to jump into any new projects without careful consideration. But I don't see how a reasonable person could reject a priori a trial program allowing out-of-boundary use after the season, a program which would generate income and allow for the snowmachine users in our community to prove their good intentions and responsible ways. I fear that those who say "no" categorically - and worse, insult the integrity of all those who use snowmachines by describing them with trite stereotypes - undermine the viability of communitywide support for Eaglecrest. Such close-minded persons need to be ready when those they have refused to engage in dialogue and insulted come to their elected officials asking for a piece of Eaglecrest's pie.

I'm not advocating opening the whole mountain to snowmachines. Can we not embrace the concept of multiple-use and allow a trial plan at Eaglecrest, perhaps while other more suitable long-term venues for snowmachines are found? If not, then those who claim to know what's best for all by virtue of their intransigence are hurting those of us who ski every day we have the chance.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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