After questions raised, Forest Service concludes it is not a crime to ski out of bounds | NevadaAppeal.com

After questions raised, Forest Service concludes it is not a crime to ski out of bounds

Amanda Fehd
Nevada Appeal News Service

It is not a crime to ski out of bounds into public land, according to a nationwide policy of the U.S. Forest Service.

The issue came to the forefront after three rescue operations at Heavenly Mountain Resort last week, two in California and one in Nevada. The skiers allegedly exited Heavenly Mountain Resort through their new backcountry gates, which were mandated by the Forest Service.

Apparently there was some confusion this week between the Forest Service and local law enforcement on what constitutes a crime in this situation.

Most ski areas on the West Coast operate on public land under a permit from the Forest Service, including Heavenly.

Ski resorts may close areas within their permit boundary due to hazards, but they may not limit access to public land outside the border of their permit area, said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

“Our guiding principal is that national forests are public lands and we should not restrict access to the public’s lands,” Mathes said. “If someone wants to leave the ski area boundary and ski into the backcountry, that’s their prerogative as a citizen. We do not consider it a crime.”

This is a contentious issue throughout the country because of the time, money and emotional costs counties incur from search and rescue operations, Mathes said.

El Dorado County Sheriff’s Detective Greg Almos said the two cases in California from Sunday are under review and no one has been issued a citation. A search for a snowboarder on the Nevada side was called off soon after it was initiated, and the man was not cited, said Douglas County Sheriff spokesman Sgt. Tom Mezzetta.

The Forest Service expects skiers to obey all closure signs and roped-off areas and warns that anyone who enters the backcountry does so at their own risk.

“If they get into a bad situation, there are only two possible outcomes: The individuals will either die or they will have to pay for a very expensive rescue,” Mathes said.

Mezzetta said there is a public safety concern here. The Forest Service does not consider out-of-bounds skiers a problem because they do not have to foot the bill for search-and-rescue operations, or send volunteers out who risk their lives, he said.

The county has the means to recover the costs of the rescue through civil action, said Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman. The Forest Service cannot do that.

California counties may bill each other for the cost of rescuing a resident of another county, Almos said.

A Douglas County statute prohibits bypassing a man-made barrier designed to prevent skiers from leaving the resort.

However, many ski resort borders are marked only by a sign that says “ski area boundary.” There are often no ropes or closure signs.

Sierra-at-Tahoe spokeswoman Nicole Klay said resort policy prohibits leaving through those areas. Norman was unable to confirm or deny Tuesday whether that is a violation of the Forest Service’s open access policy.

Sierra-at-Tahoe restricts access to its eastern area, called Huckleberry Canyon, through backcountry gates. The canyon lies within its permit area, so it can be closed for hazards.

Heavenly Mountain Resort is the only ski area in Douglas County.

The sheriff’s department is prepared to cite anyone popping out on Kingsbury Grade who they can show bypassed a man-made barrier at Heavenly, Mezzetta said.

“We are not saying anyone who goes out into the backcountry is in violation of the law,” Mezzetta said. “If they don’t intentionally bypass a man-made barrier, then they are not in violation.”

While Bob Morris, Douglas County deputy chief district attorney, who helped write the skier responsibility code, said the county has a right to make such a law, the Forest Service disagreed.

“We have jurisdiction over federal land,” Mathes said.

Douglas and El Dorado counties have agreements with the Forest Service that each county takes the lead in search and rescue operations.

Nobody has been cited so far this season by Douglas County, said Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Duffy.

“But the season is young,” he said.