Opens Forest Service, Mammoth Mountain to potential liability
June Mountain Ski Area just might be more difficult to keep closed than it is to keep open.
Although the ski area will not open this winter, the mountain itself is still there—big, gorgeous, tree-free, covered in a deep blanket of white—and it’s proving irresistible to some snowmobilers and backcountry skiers.
There’s only one problem.
It might get them hurt, or even killed.
That’s because the ski area right now is neither fish nor fowl, neither a true, groomed and heavily managed ski area, nor a true wilderness backcountry.
That makes it dangerous.
“Since Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is not maintaining the area for skiers, the condition of the snow is different and conditions are different than when they are doing daily maintenance for daily use (as in when the ski hill is open),” said Nancy Upham, the Inyo National Forest’s public information officer. “Avalanche control is done differently, in different locations, and to a different level than when the ski area is open for public skiing. There is no ski patrol, no avalanche patrol, no grooming and no rescue patrol. To achieve a degree of safety adequate for public access is more complicated than one would think.”
It comes down to when a ski area is open, extreme care is taken to protect the public from harm, she said. If the ski area manager is negligent in this duty and someone gets hurt, the legal ramifications can be extreme.
When a backcountry skier or snowmobiler heads into the wilderness, they assume all the risks inherent in such an endeavor. If the person gets caught in an avalanche, there is no one to legally blame.
But June Mountain right now lies in a kind of limbo—neither legally open, nor capable of being fenced off to prevent all access. It would be less complicated if there were no human activities underway on the mountain right now, but there is—avalanche control is being done to protect some structures and facilities.
That presents the Forest Service—on whose land the ski area rests—and Mammoth Mountain—which owns the buildings and infrastructure—a bunch of problems.
“We are worried about people unknowingly being in the path of a slide,” said Mammoth and Mono Lake District Ranger Jon Regelbrugge Tuesday. “Even though we have posted signs noting the area is closed, we know people are up there, we know snowmobilers are using the area, riding right up the face of the mountain. Unfortunately, we only have two law enforcement rangers to patrol 600,000 acres.”
He said that MMSA is patrolling three areas of the mountain to “protect their facilities and those of the June Lake PUD from avalanche damage. For their own safety, MMSA is accessing the area with a snow cat, as skiing or snowmobile access is more dangerous with the minimal work being done.”
The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that the Forest Service and Mammoth Mountain have yet to sign a “winter operating plan” for the ski area. Although the ski area is technically closed, it still requires daily management by MMSA.
When any ski area on federal land is open, a winter operating plan is in place, approved by the Forest Service. It’s a routine document, common across the country for such businesses.
But creating an operating plan for a ski area that is temporarily, but not permanently, closed is a far different thing and it has yet to be completed for June Mountain, according to Regelbrugge.
“We are still working with MMSA to complete this plan,” he said. He said the plan has been submitted to the forest’s legal counsel for review. It is expected to be finalized in mid-January.
June Lake business owner Connie Black said she is worried that the slow movement on the winter operating plan for a closed June Mountain Ski Area portends an equally slow snail’s pace for getting June Mountain up and running again next winter—and June Lake, despite all the work it has done to stay alive this winter, cannot survive another winter like this one.
“It’s critical that we don’t let this slide,” said the Double Eagle Spa and Resort owner.
Regelbrugge said comparing the two types of permits and processes is not useful.
“We do hundreds of ski area permits, it’s a routine process for the Forest Service,” he said. “But doing a winter operating plan on a temporarily closed ski area—that is something we don’t have a lot of precedent for and it is going to take longer.”