‘Equal and Reasonable Access’: The Issue of Trail Use at Mt. Bachelor

Peter MindeApril 8, 2016
New Year's Eve at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center near Bend, Ore. (Photo: Rion O'Grady/Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center Facebook)
New Year’s Eve at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center near Bend, Ore. (Photo: Rion O’Grady/Mt Bachelor Nordic Center Facebook)

Is there room at one ski center to support two junior development programs? In central Oregon, it depends on who you ask.

Mount Bachelor, 22 miles outside Bend, Ore., is a touchstone for nordic skiers. Located in Deschutes National Forest, Mt. Bachelor operates with a special use permit from the US Forest Service (USFS). The U.S. Ski Team has run training camps here and they’ve hosted national championships. In addition, there’s an extensive alpine mountain. With a base lodge at 6,300 feet above sea level, the venue boasts generally good snow conditions.

Mt. Bachelor has a longstanding relationship with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation (MBSEF), a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit which has development programs for nordic, alpine and freestyle skiing. MBSEF runs its ski programs on the trails at Mt. Bachelor.

The much-newer Bend Endurance Academy (BEA), a nonprofit founded in 2009, would like to share the trails — at least, in low snow years. Except for a couple of rare occasions, BEA has not had permission to run its programs on Mt. Bachelor.

Since its inception, BEA has used Meissner Nordic, a nonprofit ski center also located on Mt. Bachelor. Run by volunteers, Meissner Nordic grooms 40 kilometers of ski trails on US Forest Service land.

It’s all good, until the weather doesn’t cooperate. Located 1,500 feet lower on Mt. Bachelor than the eponymous ski area, the previous two winters, 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, were difficult for Meissner, while Mt. Bachelor enjoyed better conditions higher up the mountain.

In February 2015, BEA approached Mt. Bachelor resort officials about using public lands at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center. They denied BEA’s request, except for the last two weekends of the season.

A group of Bend Endurance Academy youth skiers in February. (Photo: Ryder "the Badger" Utrecht/Bend Endurance Academy Facebook)
A group of Bend Endurance Academy youth skiers in February 2016. (Photo: Ryder Utrecht/Bend Endurance Academy Facebook)

This year, the academy has circulated a petition called Let the Kids Ski, calling for more access to Mt. Bachelor.

“There are two places in central Oregon that have groomed nordic trails,” said BEA Board President Cris Himes. “Meissner Nordic and Mt. Bachelor. Meissner has worked very well until recently due to ski conditions.

“What we’re looking for is equal and reasonable access,” Himes continued. “Equal to any other paying customer and community group.”

According to Dave Rathbun, Mt. Bachelor’s former president and general manager who resigned in mid-March, the resort had existing relationships with four businesses “to run their businesses sort of inside our own,” he said. “We still have to get approval from the Forest Service for these concessionaires.”

MBSEF, whose board Rathbun also sat on, is the designated concessionaire for nordic and alpine ski programming. Rathbun is no longer a member of that board.

In a December interview with the Bend Bulletin, Rathbun characterized BEA’s interest in Mt. Bachelor as a desire to use the resort as “a home base for their business.”

“[BEA] want to operate their business within ours, and in most cases at a time when we’re already at capacity,” Rathbun told FasterSkier. “It’s very busy at the times they want to have access.”

Rathbun added that Mt. Bachelor is “at capacity” for instruction in both in nordic and alpine skiing. “We’re not going to open it up to any other concessionaires.”

In addition to its own paying customers, Mt. Bachelor’s agreement with the USFS requires the resort to accommodate people who want to access backcountry skiing via a “common corridor.”

According to Rathbun, “that’s another 10,000 visits per year,” in addition to about 30,000 visitors per year skiing Mt. Bachelor.

Himes feels that the lodge might be crowded, but believes that the trails are not. For her, the primary issue is ensuring that kids have access to skiing. The lack of decent snow is a barrier to participation, and this is reflected in the numbers. Although BEA’s competition team is larger than last year, the enrollment in its youth club and nordic development programs is down 38 percent and 28 percent respectively from the 2014/2015 season.

“Last year Mt. Bachelor did a remarkable job of keeping their snow,” Himes said. “When we can’t run our programs at Meissner, we need to be able to take our kids to groomed trails somewhere else. The only option is Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center.”

New Year's Day 2016 at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center near Bend, Ore. (Photo: Lew Becker/Mt Bachelor Nordic Center Facebook)
New Year’s Day 2016 at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center near Bend, Ore. (Photo: Lew Becker/Mt Bachelor Nordic Center Facebook)

During the snow drought two seasons ago in 2014/2015, Rathbun reflected, “I wanted to be a good neighbor. We gave BEA access to nordic center in afternoons, the last couple of weekends in March. I think it worked out well and they appreciated being able to get on snow.”

In a July email to BEA, Rathbun offered the academy access on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and weekends after 12 p.m., with certain blackout dates during peak periods. These times apparently didn’t match BEA’s program schedule, and according to Himes, left only three weekends out of the winter for training. In September, Himes met with Rathbun to negotiate more favorable access times, to no avail.

“I’m really sorry about that, but that’s the only way we feel it can work, based on how crowded we are,” Rathbun told FasterSkier.

“I can see both sides,” said Alan Watson, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA) nordic program director. “My interest is in promoting the success of all these programs. I would like Mt. Bachelor to let BEA train on their trails. It would be good for skiing in the northwest.”

Is trail crowding a red herring? Rathbun said that BEA skiers were welcome to come up and ski so long as they had a pass, but that organized training with a coach wouldn’t be permitted – except at the times listed above.

Does Mt. Bachelor wield trail access as a cudgel? From a distance, it’s hard to tell. But FasterSkier obtained three documents sent anonymously to Himes. One was Oregon School Ski Association’s (OSSA) participation policy. OSSA is one of the two governing bodies for high-school alpine skiing in central Oregon, and holds race meets at Mt. Bachelor. Circulated in December 2014, the policy required students on high school ski teams to participate in four training sessions each week, including races.

OSSA Race Director Matt Cutter said that there were students that participated in both high school and club programs, and that OSSA’s goal with this policy was to instill team unity.

“We don’t want ringers,” Cutter said of athletes who only show up for race meets. “We needed to get something in writing.”

The other two documents, both dated Jan. 8, 2015, are responses from Rathbun and John Scheimer, MBSEF’s executive director, to OSSA. Rathbun’s letter decried OSSA’s participation policy, stating that it would negatively impact “students who club race with MBSEF and have other extracurricular interests.” The letter concluded, “…with our strategic partner MBSEF, we [Mt. Bachelor] will be reviewing all elements of OSSA activities occurring on Mount Bachelor. … Any changes in these privileges will be communicated to you as soon as possible.” Scheimer’s letter to OSSA was written in a similar tone.

Scheimer declined an interview request for this article.

In response to the letters, Cutter said that OSSA rescinded its policy. “That was not our intention at all” to exclude anybody, or force a student to choose between a club program and the high school team, Cutter explained.

Cutter viewed the disagreement as minor, adding, “I can’t stress enough how much support Mt. Bachelor gives us.”

Rathbun said that his letter was actually in response to scheduling conflicts between OSSA and OISRA, a second governing body for Oregon high school alpine skiing. However, neither his letter nor Scheimer’s make any reference to OISRA. Cutter said that while Rathbun discussed scheduling with OISRA, it was in correspondence from August 2015.

“The kids know each other, the parents know each other, we support each other’s kids,” said Himes of BEA and MBSEF. “I am really hoping that we will be working cooperatively with MBSEF.”

With good conditions this winter, trail access at Mt. Bachelor wasn’t as crucial. Next year may be a different story.

Peter Minde

Peter Minde is a FasterSkier contributor and personal trainer specializing in functional strength and corrective exercise. Whether skiing, trail running, or cycling, he’s always looking to see what’s at the top of the next hill. From the wilds of north N.J., he skis for Peru Nordic. On Twitter @PeteMinde or at www.oxygenfedsport.com.

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