Open Spaces

by Devon O'Neil on July 28, 2011

One of the undeniable human instincts, I believe, is to want to claim land and space for oneself. It’s why property ownership was invented, it’s why wars have been fought, neighbors killed, guard dogs bred, white picket fences erected. Yet the whole reason I love living in the West is because of how much public land there is for everyone.

Now, if everyone actually ventured out and enjoyed this land, it would not be as sweet a place as it is. That’s the sad truth: I like that the land is public, but I love that the public isn’t crawling all over the land. Because, the fact is, there aren’t many people out in the mountains. Most days you can get up high and not see anyone.

So when I recently learned someone is writing a guidebook about all our local backcountry ski lines, I was bummed. It was instinctive, like mourning a loss.

Guidebooks are like talking maps; one step below dashboard-mounted GPS units. Do we really need talking maps? Or do we just need regular maps and word of mouth? This is a fundamental question, and certainly not a new one. Locals have long been protective of their surroundings. Look at Amazon tribes, or how localized surfing is.

Still bummed, I sent an e-mail to the guidebook writer — who happens to live an hour and a half away, on the Front Range — asking him why he was writing his guidebook. I was simply curious; I didn’t even beg him not to write the book. He never wrote me back. I can only surmise he is doing it for his ego — so everyone knows he skis the backcountry and is privy to all the stashes — or for money. And if it’s money … really? Who is projecting his sales numbers?

I’m aware there could be some hypocrisy here. I write for a living, and there have been stories in which I’ve included a tip for where to get a juicy burger or which outfitter to hire for a run down Gore Canyon. But I can never bring myself to write about a place’s true secrets. It’s easy money, but it comes with a dirty feeling, like I’ve just sold out every explorer who made a point to discover those secrets on his or her own.

Lately, another issue has been evoking similar philosophical thoughts: the collision of public lands and big business. Our local ski resort, which is part of a public corporation, and which brings in more visitors than any resort in America, is trying to expand onto a fifth peak. The issue is too deep and complex to dissect in this space, but basically, a bunch of locals are against it because the town’s already too crowded, and there are plenty who believe the expansion would attract so many more people that the new terrain wouldn’t even matter; the resort (and town) would become even more overwhelmed.

It’s turned into quite the political issue, as public-lands battles tend to do, but one of the main points of contention, as I see it, has more to do with the public process than the issue at hand. The sole decision maker is a federal employee who lives an hour away and candidly admits he never skis Breckenridge, nor spends much time in the town, least of all during the few weeks a year when it takes a half-hour to drive a half-mile down Main Street.

Which begs the question: That’s the best we can do? I realize the land, by definition, belongs as much to a farmer from Topeka as it does to me and everyone else who lives here. I’m not arguing that. But it’s one thing to allow equal entitlement, it’s another for outsiders to establish user rights and approve development when the implications are much broader than they realize, or care to admit — federal employee or not.

As for the guidebook writer, his book will come out and maybe we’ll see a few more people in the places where we used to see nobody. Not the end of the world, and certainly enriching for the new visitors. But as I wrote to him in my e-mail, if his reason for writing the book is to share these cool spots with others, why not let them experience the rush of finding the places on their own, or with a good friend leading them? Seems pretty fair to me.

Notes from a ski town just north of Ciudad Juárez and just south of Banff.

Breckenridge, Colo.-based Devon O'Neil writes about sports for ESPN and freelances for a number of other publications. His work can be viewed at

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