JACKSON, Wyo. Bridger-Teton National Forest officials have withdrawn approval for expanded helicopter-accessed skiing to investigate claims raised by conservation groups.
Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton's decision comes in response to an appeal filed by conservationists who contend that plans to increase helicopter ski trips in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee forests would harm wildlife and degrade wilderness.
"They raised some issues in their appeal that I need to look into," Hamilton said. She said she wants to "make sure that we've done the appropriate level of analysis" and "make sure that we're on firm ground" before issuing the permit.
High Mountain Heli-Skiing, of Teton Village, will continue to operate under a temporary-use permit allowing 832 skier days while Hamilton resolves questions about a new five-year permit that would have allowed up to 1,200 skier days per season. A skier day is one person's trip.
High Mountain Heli-Skiing owner Jon Shick did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance's Tom Darin said conservationists were pleased with the decision.
"This is an opportunity to sit down with the forest to see if we can find some common ground," he said.
A coalition of five environmental groups, including the alliance, filed an appeal Dec. 28 to challenge Hamilton's Nov. 8 decision granting High Mountain Heli-Skiing the expanded business.
Her decision more than doubled the number of skier days authorized under a 1984 permit, which allowed 468 days.
The Forest Service has been making annual exceptions to the old permit, allowing as many as 903 service days in a season. High Mountain Heli-Skiing had requested 1,500 skier days.
Conservationists argued that the Forest Service failed to properly consider the permit's cumulative effects, other viable alternatives and effects on wildlife and wilderness character.
Hamilton said she would ask her staff to look into all four appeal points in detail.
The appeal technically becomes moot, since Hamilton has withdrawn her decision. The Forest Service will issue a new decision before next winter season, she said.
Conservationists would have to file a new appeal if not satisfied with the outcome.
They particularly object to allowing more helicopter skiing in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area.
In their appeal, the groups argued that the Forest Service used an inflated baseline number to estimate impacts.
They said that when Congress designated the area in 1984, use in the Palisades was far less than 468 days, the number used by the Forest Service. Only 57 skier days occurred in the wilderness study area in the winter of 1982-83 while most helicopter skiing took place outside the Palisades, the appeal states.
The inflated baseline numbers resulted in an underestimate of true impacts to wilderness, which must be managed in a way that does not degrade its character, the appeal states.
Darin said conservationists' top concern is increasing motorized use in the study area. The appeal also charged the Forest Service with failing to adequately study combined impacts of snowmobiling and helicopter skiing in the Palisades.
In addition, the appeal argued the Forest Service should have studied an alternative that would have moved helicopter skiing out of the area.
Other groups backing the appeal included the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Predator Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Wilderness Association and Sierra Club.
Information from: Jackson Hole News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com