Mark Menlove is the executive director of Winter Wildlands, a national group that advocates for "human-powered winter sports" on behalf of 34 grass roots winter recreation groups in 11 states. Menlove worked in the ski resort industry before moving into public lands activism. His 9-year-old organization has been involved in a high-profile dispute over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park for years, but is also working with many National Forests, including the Payette and Clearwater, on managing winter travel to provide "places of quiet and places to really rejuvenate and recreate, in the truest sense of that word, which is to re-create," as Menlove put it.
You worked at ski resorts before this gig?
My background is in the ski resort industry. I worked for the U.S. Ski Team for a while in the late '80s doing communications and media relations stuff. And then I worked for Park City Resort for a number of years, still tied in closely with the U.S. Ski Team and what they were doing with World Cup racing and things. And then I ran Ski Utah and the Utah Ski Association, which is the trade organization and marketing arm of the ski resort industry in Utah. You know, a lot of it was really great, but it also seemed like the farther up I got within the resort industry side of things, the less it seemed to have to do with skiing and the more with, you know, the bottom line, and I got kind of disillusioned with the whole growth for growth's sake mentality that was really rampant at that point in the mid-'90s. So I just dropped out and went back to graduate school, actually in creative writing, or as one of the Ski Utah board members put it at my last meeting, "Mark is leaving us to pursue a degree in poverty," which turned out to be prophetic.
Are you a really good skier?
I like to ski. I ski a lot. It's been a passion of mine since as long as I can remember. I grew up right at the base of the Wasatch in the Salt Lake Valley and skied a lot growing up. I still enjoy ski resorts, but my passion these days is backcountry skiing and that has added a whole different realm in terms of my enjoyment.
What is the status of your Yellowstone snowmobile case?
It is our highest profile issue, and it's also interminable. We're actually making real progress. The National Park Service announced [recently] a two-year rule that limits the number of snowmobiles to 318 a day. They all have to be the best available technology, which is a four-stroke machine, and they all have to be commercially guided. And that's less than half of what the daily limit was up to this point. We still think it should go farther. The situation on the ground in Yellowstone is night and day from what it was eight or 10 years ago.
Do you think they should be eliminated from the park?
I'm not sure I'd go that far. We're a lot closer to striking a balance now. The bottom line for us is the park needs to be protected. It's a magical place in winter. It's our first National Park and one of our icons as far as a sanctuary, and we need to treat it as such. And to their credit, I think, the snowmobile industry has come closer to being able to do that and certainly, this guiding requirement and the best available technology requirement are helping.
Would you say the majority of the issues you deal with are snowmobile-skier related?
Yes. We're making headway. One of our biggest issues right now is the Forest Service travel management plans, which prescribe where motorized vehicle use is or is not appropriate. There was a new rule that came out in 2005 that sort of directs all of this, and it limits off-road vehicle use to designated routes and trails or areas. It's been great in controlling wheeled ORV use, ATVs and dirt bikes and whatnot, and eliminating cross-country travel, but the rule excludes snowmobiles, or their term is "over-snow vehicles." And so it allows each forest, if they choose to manage winter use and snowmobiles they can, but they don't have to, and so that's one of our biggest issues right now is trying to convince the Forest Service at the national level to do away with that loophole for snowmobiles. And also to work at the forest level to convince each forest to choose to manage winter use. The Clearwater National Forest right now is putting together their travel plan. They have chosen to manage winter use and their draft plan is a really good, well-balanced plan, leaving a lot of area open for snowmobiles, but also protecting other large areas for non-motorized use.
What are the impacts of snowmobiles?
Treetop damage. There's soil compaction, especially when they ride them on low snow levels. And the issue for us that really comes to bear is quiet. We believe that the natural sights and sounds of winter, and especially quiet, that's a resource that the Forest Service should be managing. There needs to be places where we can go into the backcountry and find quiet, get away from all of the city noise. So that's an impact that clearly snowmobiles have. And then there's the air quality issue, which in a place like Yellowstone, where you have snowmobiles confined in one area, it can be a huge impact.
Do you have plans for the winter?
We do an annual hut trip with my family. The kids ski in and haul their own stuff in. We'll do that for sure in February or March. I'm hoping to get back over to Yellowstone again with our family. I'll do at least another hut trip in Idaho with probably grown ups. My kids are both in the ski program at Bogus, which by the way I think is just a fantastic resort. With my background in the ski industry and that disillusionment that I talked about, when I look at Bogus, it's everything a ski resort should be and none of the things that it shouldn't be.