Some people take up golf, others start playing bridge or bird watching. When Luann Danforth and her husband retired, they bought a pair of used snowmobiles and started tearing up the winter trails and fresh stashes of Cascade powder around Central Oregon. The roar of a two-stroke engine is the soundtrack to their golden years.
The couple moved to Sisters from Portland five years ago and took up snowmobiling shortly thereafter when a friend introduced them to the sport. One of their weekly winter rituals happens every Wednesday when the couple makes the nearly hour long trek to Bend to meet up with a group of fellow snowmobile enthusiasts for a weekly ride out of Wanoga sno-park.
The weekday rides allow them to escape the crowds. Like many other snowmobilers, they'd like to see more parking constructed to alleviate congestion on the popular recreation corridor between Bend and Mt. Bachelor. However, they count themselves among an unlikely alliance of snowmobilers, backcountry skiers and other winter recreationalists who oppose the Forest Service's plan to alleviate some of the crowding that vexes Century Drive. The project, dubbed the Kapka Butte Sno-Park, has been almost a decade in the making and would be constructed near the Sunriver interchange between the existing sno-parks at Wanoga and Dutchman Flat. The park would include more than 70 new parking spaces to accommodate oversized vehicles and trailers. If built, the park would, at least on paper, alleviate some of the crowding issues along the Cascades Lakes Highway, particularly at Dutchman where snowmobilers, skiers and other winter users cram into an undersized lot that was built to accommodate just 26 vehicles.
But the controversy surrounding Kapka is about more than just parking. It's a prolonged tug-of-war between the influential and well-organized motorized winter recreation community and skiers and snowshoers who say they have been marginalized by the growth of gas-powered traffic that is going farther, faster and more frequently into areas that were once known for their remote tranquility.
"We don't see the problem as in the parking lots and the Forest Service would like to frame it as a parking lot issue. We see it as a problem of the experience when you leave the parking lot," said Scott Silver, a local non-motorized advocate whose group Wild Wilderness has fought previous efforts to expand parking for motorized recreation along Century Drive.
Balancing the interests of two user groups whose needs are in such diametric opposition has been an ongoing challenge for the Forest Service, which convened a winter recreation summit in 1994 to address the issues at Dutchman. At the time, motorized users were lobbying to expand the parking area at Dutchman, which also serves as the launching point for backcountry skiers headed to Tumalo Mountain. However, the Forest Service has been reluctant to target the Dutchman area for any large scale parking expansion along the highway, in part because of unresolved user conflicts in the area.
In the middle of the last decade, the Forest Service turned its attention to the Kapka Butte area hoping to move some motorized and non-motorized traffic away from Dutchman. It's a move that Silver said backcountry and other non-motorized users supported, at least initially. That's because, according to Silver, the Forest Service assured skiers that it would take steps to mitigate the expansion of motorized recreation parking along the highway, a potential source of increased conflict. While the Forest Service designated a portion of Tumalo Mountain as non-motorized area, it has been unwilling to take more aggressive steps such as closing the Dutchman lot to snowmobilers or designating more of Tumalo as exclusively non-motorized, as groups like the Bend Backcountry Alliance have urged as a trade off.
"If [the Forest Service] wants to add new capacity and wants to use this opportunity to do a big solution, we're open to the possibility of that happening. We're open to the idea of the original Kapka proposal perhaps working, if it included things like Tumalo or the backcountry gateway concept [at Dutchman].
"I'm not saying that's the solution that would make us happy, but that is an example of the kind of effort to balance out a solution and the Forest Service has made zero effort to balance out any solution," Silver said.
Because of those concerns, backcountry users have largely banded together to lobby against the Kapka proposal as it stands. In fact, just a cursory review of the more than 300 comments received by the Forest Service shows what appears to be a groundswell of opposition to the Kapka proposal.
Backcountry users aren't the only ones poking holes in the Forest Service's plans. The debate over Kapka has fractured the local snowmobile community, helping to fuel a schism that split the Bend-based snowmobile club, Moon Country Sno-Mobilers. The group has long opposed Kapka over concerns that it kills any hope of expanding Dutchman. But that position didn't square with the views of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association's leadership who ultimately opted to endorse the Kapka plan. The OSSA opted to decertify the Moon Country club, though current members are quick to point out that there were other issues at play. Riders who supported the OSSA eventually formed their own club, the Central Oregon Snowbusters.
Moon Country board member Dave Lynn has helped to lead the drive against Kapka, which includes the website expanddutchman.com and a petition drive. Lynn said that among snowmobilers it comes down to riding preferences. Backcountry riders want to ensure that their access to the high country is maintained and opportunities for access expanded. That means investing any available funds at Dutchman, where the best snow and terrain is located.
"I think it's an absolute waste of money to build a sno-park at too low of an elevation, which is where Kapka is located," he said.
Lynn doesn't mince words when it comes to OSSA's support of the Kapka proposal.
"OSSA has been around for many, many years and the folks who run it have been a "yes" man to the Forest Service and whatever the Forest Service says, they've gone along with. Plus they represent a group of folks who ride trails only and that that's great and Kapka would not affect them. It's probably a plus. With our group we're riding the backcountry where there are no trails," Lynn said.
He also concedes that if Kapka is built there is little hope that Dutchman would be expanded, at least not in any significant way. Ironically, that puts Lynn and the rest of the motorized backcountry crowd in an almost identical position as the non-motorized users, lobbying against a solution that might seem reasonable on paper, but would forfeit any leverage for the long-term goal. In the case of non-motorized users, that's an expanded non-motorized zone on Tumalo and closure of motorized trails that are used to access the area. If motorized users kill Kapka, they'll be seeking exactly the opposite - more access at Dutchman and no further restrictions around the backcountry.
But if snowmobilers are holding out hope that killing Kapka will lead to a renewed discussion of more parking and access at Dutchman, they are mistaken, said Deschutes Forest Recreation Team Leader Amy Tinderholt, who is overseeing the Kapka project.
Tinderholt said Dutchman has been examined and reexamined as a long-term solution and ruled out. While the Forest Service has left the door open to a limited expansion at Dutchman, there is simply not enough space to accommodate the kind of development proposed at Kapka around the Dutchman area, she said.
That isn't deterring critics like Lynn who believe that if they can get the Forest Service back to the negotiating table, Dutchman will be back in play. However, given that the most deep-pocketed snowmobile lobby has already thrown its support behind Kapka, the backcountry riders may be counting on their longtime nemesis Silver to torpedo the project. Silver's Wild Wilderness said he is already working both political and legal avenues to derail Kapka, if necessary. He's been in contact with the Federal Highway Administration, which has provided funding for the work to-date on Kapka. He's also hired an environmental law firm to parse the Forest Service's planning and legal work. To that end, Silver said he's prepared to force the agency to stand up to the representations it made at the start of this process when it promised to balance the needs of competing users.
"The Forest Service will tell you that things have changed - that the mentality has changed. But the laws haven't changed," Silver said.