The Great Alta Debate
Alta filed a motion to dismiss the case against its skiers-only policy. But that doesn't mean snowboarders are out.
It seemed like a long time coming, but Alta’s “skiers versus snowboarders” quarrel finally boiled over from barroom to courtroom this January, when a group of snowboarders filed a formal complaint in federal court alleging the Utah resort’s no-snowboarders policy violates their Constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
After months of silence, a stoic Alta finally spoke its piece at the end of March, and did so emphatically, filing a motion to dismiss the case entirely. The snowboarder’s argument, according to the mountain, would never hold up in court, didn’t deserve a trial, and was a gross misinterpretation of the law.
Said Alta’s lawyers in their most recent court filing: “It demeans the Constitution to suggest that the amendment that protected the interests of former slaves during Reconstruction…must be expanded to protect the interests of those who engage in a particularized winter sport.”
Working in conjunction with snowsports advocacy group Wasatch Equality, snowboarders Rick Alden, Drew Hicken, Richard Varga, and Bjorn Leines had originally claimed that Alta’s no-snowboarders policy—a policy dating back to the 1980s—was discriminatory by nature and should not be allowed on the public land that Alta leases from the United States Forest Service. The group maintained that snowboarders were being kept from public land unlawfully, and that they were being denied access to that land because of a general dislike, or animus, by the Alta organization and community—a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The Equal Protection Clause is meant to protect groups of people against harmful bias, in this case a bias that Wasatch Equality’s lawyer Jon Schofield feels has kept snowboarders from gaining legal access to the resort’s terrain.
“They are perpetuating this ‘hate snowboarders’ attitude,” claims Hicken, one of the four longtime snowboarders involved in the suit. “When Baldy access was opened from the Snowbird side two seasons ago, we were heckled by skiers at the top, near the exit of the lift station, and again in the parking lot. You can get a sense of how the people [at Alta] think.”
Yet, according to Bill Gilbert, a third party discrimination lawyer from Seattle, that doesn’t constitute a successful discrimination claim.
“Snowboarders, I don’t care how they spin it in the lawsuit, are not a protected class,” says Gilbert. “They are trying to make a push to be considered a protected class by saying that they are treated like they are different, and I think that will get thrown out in court.”
However, Gilbert thinks that snowboarders may have a case in the long run, arguing that Alta’s federal land lease holds the key. Of the three remaining U.S. ski areas that don’t allow snowboarders (Alta, Deer Valley, and Mad River Glen), only Alta leases its land from the government. Gilbert maintains that a decision may come down to the lease document between Alta and the United States Forest Service, a document revised in 2002 and created nearly 50 years before the advent of snowboarding.
“The argument is going to come down to that agreement between Alta and the U.S. Government over the lease for that ground,” explains Gilbert. “If they’re given the power to restrict use on that ground in the lease, then they can restrict use.”
Though there are a series of rebuttals that likely won’t get sorted out until May, it appears that Alta may indeed have that authority. In their initial defense, they indicate that the USFS, “has not required that Alta prohibit the use of snowboards,” giving the resort the ability to regulate uphill and downhill travel on its own “to promote safety of employees and persons on the mountain.” The USFS has since supported that claim, backing Alta in the case.
But where Alta has the means to restrict, they also have the power to loosen, and even if they have the right moves to shut down current legal action, snowboarders may have started their rallying cry at the right time.
In mid-March, Ski Utah announced ONE Wasatch, an idea that proposes connecting the seven Wasatch resorts as a feasible option. All resorts, including Alta, supported the idea, which brings up the interesting hypothetical: Will Alta retain its skiers-only stance if all of the resorts are connected? Alta’s boundary forms the bridge between Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood Canyons, meaning that in order for a true connection to exist, Alta would have to consider allowing boarders.
“As the plan gets more refined, that will be one of the things that will be addressed,” noted Alta General Manager Onno Weiringa in a ONE Wasatch press conference.
A similar situation played out in Aspen over 10 years ago when Ajax was the lone Aspen area to prohibit snowboarding. A group of snowboarders brought a discrimination complaint to the USFS who in turn put pressure on Ajax. The mountain successfully argued that their lease with the USFS gave them the right to manage who used the terrain, yet the argument initiated momentum that eventually led to Ajax opening their slopes to boarders in 2001.
“During this public argument, we were already having a vigorous private argument about allowing snowboarders on the mountain,” says John Norton, a former SkiCo executive. “Ultimately, the pro-snowboard argument won. We had a need to reposition the Aspen experience as super fun for younger mountain athletes and disallowing snowboards made that job harder than it needed to be.”
Alta doesn’t exactly need to reposition—they have built a strong following as a skiers-only mountain—but the pressure to “play ball” from the other Wasatch resorts presents a unique problem: Does Alta hold true to its mantra, or does it evolve with the proposed future of the Wasatch?
“Alta was one of the first ski areas in the country that actually had snowboarders back in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” says Dave Van Dame, a longtime Alta skier known to most as Farmer Dave. “It didn’t mix…If snowboarders are taking off their boards and post-holing our traverses to get to good terrain, that really doesn’t work.”
Norton admits that, despite his allegiances, allowing snowboards has been a good thing for Aspen. Yet is it the right call for Alta—the most famous skiers-only location in the world? True, at the moment it looks like the resort has its legal bases covered, but now the resort is presented with an even tougher task: planning towards the future.
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