Salt Lake City, UT – Four snowboarders and Wasatch Equality, a Utah non-profit corporation whose stated mission is to open all ski areas operating on public land to snowboarding, filed a lawsuit today in the United States District Court for the District of Utah against Alta Ski Area and the U.S. Forest Service, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent Alta from enforcing its snowboarding ban.
The Plaintiffs also seek a declaration from the Court that Alta’s snowboarding prohibition, as enforced by the Forest Service, violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and is therefore unlawful.
The lawsuit names as Defendants Alta Ski Lifts Company doing business as Alta Ski Area, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and David Whittekiend in his official capacity as Forest Service Supervisor for the USFS in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jonathan Schofield, an attorney with the Salt Lake City law firm Parr, Brown, Gee & Loveless. According to Schofield, “Alta is one of only three ski resorts in the United States that does not allow snowboarding, and Alta is the only one of these resorts that is operated on public land controlled by the Forest Service. Because of Alta’s relationship with the government, Alta’s actions must comply with the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Alta’s prohibition against snowboarders excludes a particular class of individuals from use and enjoyment of public land based on irrational discrimination against snowboarders, which denies them equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The other two U.S. ski areas that still prohibit snowboarding are Deer Valley, Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont. Eighty-five percent of Alta’s acreage is publicly owned as part of Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and Alta operates under a Forest Service Permit that specifically states that the public lands “shall remain open to the public for all lawful purposes,” according to the lawsuit. Both Deer Valley and Mad River Glen operate on privately owned land.
The complaint alleges that when Alta set forth its snowboarding ban in the mid-1980s, its policy was initiated as a result of animus held by Alta’s ownership, management, and customers towards snowboarders, and that Alta continues to enforce its ban based on this animus. The complaint further alleges that the reasons offered by Alta in support of its policy are a pretext and that there is no legitimate reason for Alta and the Forest Service’s continued denial of access to one group of people (snowboarders) while granting access to a similar group of people (skiers). Thus, according to the argument asserted by the Plaintiffs in their complaint, Alta’s anti-snowboarder policy and snowboarding ban cannot be enforced.
Attorney David B. Cronheim, Chief Legal Correspondent for First Tracks!! Online, disagrees.
“The Plaintiffs contend that Alta’s snowboard ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, but their theory is far-fetched,” opines Cronheim . “Stated simply, snowboarders are not a protected class, so the defendants must merely show that they had a ‘rational basis’ for enacting the ban. This is a very low standard and will likely be easy for Alta and the Forest Service to meet.
“Alta has in the past asserted that its terrain is not conducive to snowboarding and, therefore, it only permits skiers,” Cronheim explains. “In contrast, the Plaintiffs argue that this terrain-based explanation is merely a pretext for poorly veiled animus against snowboarders. However, Alta’s ubiquitous narrow traverses are ill-suited for snowboards in many instances. Poling along the uphill or flat portions of these cat tracks is often required and when even a single person stops, the possibility of a chain reaction collision is real danger.”
Alta’s Winter Site Operation Plan approved by the Forest Service states that uphill and downhill travel must be accepted and approved by Alta and that Alta “reserves the right to exclude any type of skiing device that they deem creates an unnecessary risk to other skiers and/or the user of the device, or any device they deem causes undue damages to the quality of the snow, or is not consistent with the business management decisions.”
“Additionally, Alta is one of the oldest ski resorts in the country so there may be a rational basis found in preserving the unique history of the resort. Either of these reasons, along with numerous others, should allow the ban to stand. The Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is almost certainly doomed to fail,” concludes Cronheim.
“Snowboarding and skiing are wholesome, family friendly activities, and there is no reason why they cannot coexist,” said Drew Hicken of Wasatch Equality, who alleges that he was allowed to ride Alta’s chairlifts with a snowboard in the early 1980s. Along with Rick Alden, professional snowboarder Bjorn Leines, and Richard Varga, Hicken is also one of the individual Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday. “We feel that it is time for Alta to let go of outdated prejudices that perpetuate a skier-versus-snowboarder mentality and allow everyone, regardless of whether they are skiers or snowboarders, to share the mountain together.”
According to the complaint, this past Sunday Alden, Hicken, Varga, and other snowboarders purchased Alta lift tickets at Alta’s ticket window. Each having purchased an Alta lift ticket, the group attempted to load Alta’s Collins chairlift with snowboards. Alta’s lift operators told the group that snowboards were not allowed at Alta and denied them access to the lift.
Alden also on Sunday allegedly rode one of Alta’s chairlifts with a splitboard. As he was riding the lift, a mid-mountain lift operator reportedly noticed that Alden was using a splitboard. When he unloaded at the top of the chairlift, two Alta Ski Patrol personnel confronted Alden and allegedly indicated that he would have to descend the mountain with his splitboard in ski mode. After some further discussion, for his own safety Alden was reportedly permitted to descend the mountain once only with his splitboard in snowboard mode. According to the complaint, he descended without incident.
Alta spokesperson Connie Marshall declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
“Alta Ski Area will not make a comment until we have been able to have a chance to look at the lawsuit statement,” Marshall indicated Wednesday evening.