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Backcountry survey seeks to value intangibles
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 30, 2013
How many days did I ski from the top of Teton Pass last year?
I tried to guess: It was a short season, as we started late after traveling over the Christmas holiday. Plus we left for spring break, ending our skiing adventures a bit early. So 30 days? Twenty? What about the days I skied from Mail Cabin? Philips Bench?
I had an easier time pinpointing what I’d spent on my backcountry habit. I bought new skis, bindings and skins this winter and know exactly how much the setup had set me back. I also got new sunglasses and a backpack last season. And did they want me to factor in equipment I’d picked up at the ski swap? What about from the consignment store?
These and more were questions I answered as part of a Winter Wildlands Alliance survey on nonmotorized backcountry winter recreation.
You, too, may have been stopped this winter at a pullout and asked to complete the survey by Mark Newcomb or Karl Meyer. The two are targeting all of the common nonmotorized winter-access points — Teton Pass, Coal Creek, Philips Bench, Teton Canyon (Idaho), Cache Creek, Taggart Lake, Trail Creek — trying to reach as many users as possible in an attempt to quantify the effects of the area’s burgeoning winter use. Newcomb’s goal with the survey, which is funded by the Jackson-based LOR Foundation, is to determine the direct economic affects of winter backcountry recreation in the Teton region.
“This kind of research hasn’t been done before,” Newcomb said. “Other activities, like snow machine use, are easier to quantify because all snow-machiners buy a trail permit. There’s a database. So you can mail a survey to everyone who bought a permit. That way it’s simple to get enough responses for the study to be statistically valid. You end up with real information about the user group.”
It’s harder to track down nonmotorized users. In general, they are independent. Most people don’t join groups to pursue their winter passion. Instead, they tend to ski or snowboard with a regular partner or a few friends, nodding cordially to the others they encounter away from the road but mostly keeping to themselves. Often these people take avalanche courses, but there’s no central database keeping track of their contact information, nor are there any lobbying organizations that represent their views.
The Winter Wildlands Alliance would like to be that group. The national nonprofit, based in Boise, Idaho, was formed in 2000 to promote and preserve winter wildlands and human-powered snow sport experiences. With 1,400 members, the group is small, but it is affiliated with 3,500 grassroots organizations across the country that have their own memberships, bringing the total number of people linked to Winter Wildlands to 25,000. Still, I bet most users on Teton Pass have never heard of the alliance.
To get a sense of the true economic benefit of these people on Jackson Hole, therefore, Newcomb needs to pound the pavement.
“We need 500 responses,” he said. “So far we’re up to about 50.”
So Newcomb and his assistant, Meyer, are standing at popular backcountry access points, waylaying skiers, boarders, snowshoers, hikers, dog walkers — anyone they can to take the survey.
Newcomb, who has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Wyoming, grew up exploring the Tetons. An Exum guide for more than 15 seasons, he has a number of notable ski-mountaineering descents to his name, including first descents of the Hossack-McCowan and Otter Body couloirs on the Grand Teton as well as many accomplishments in Asia, Antarctica, South America and Alaska.
Growing up here also meant he has watched the explosion of backcountry use around Jackson Hole during his lifetime. Thirtysome years ago, when he was first venturing out into the backcountry, he was usually with his father or friends, and they rarely encountered anyone else in their travels. Now backcountry users have to get up before dawn if they hope to get first tracks on Mount Glory, let alone a parking place on a powder day.
Newcomb said it’s hard for him to deal with the crowds on the pass, but he understands the allure of the backcountry and so does not begrudge people their experience. And now that he has an interest in economics, he is intrigued with figuring what, if any, economic impact these crowds are having on the area.
“Backcountry users have a dismal lack of clout” when it comes to influencing land management decisions, Newcomb said. He doesn’t believe that is because managers dislike the user group, it’s just that they need to base their decisions on scientific data and there is no data on nonmotorized backcountry winter recreation.
“I hope this survey helps give the backcountry experience more validity and clout,” Newcomb said. But, he acknowledges, many of the users he is targeting tend to be a bit tight with their money. And even the hottest new pair of skis costs a fraction of what a snowmobile costs.
Furthermore, a powerful backcountry experience is hard to quantify. Modern economics rely on using money to determine value, but skinning up through glittering surface hoar or making turns through untracked winter smoke doesn’t translate easily into dollars and cents. At least not into a tangible value that can be used by land managers to justify plowing more pullouts, limiting motorized use, posting more signs or supporting backcountry rangers.
“Consider the value of clear, cold water,” Newcomb says. “It supports trout streams, which support fishing. People buy fishing licenses.
They can be targeted and surveyed. Their economic impact can be quantified, and thus they have a voice. It always comes back to dollars, and right now we don’t have any sense of the dollars equated to backcountry use.”
For information on the survey, email Newcomb at firstname.lastname@example.org