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The concessionaire for Wing Mountain, the popular snowplay area northwest of Flagstaff, has decided to discontinue its operations there, leaving the area short one major recreation opportunity this coming winter.

The Forest Service announced Wednesday that Recreation Resource Management had requested a cancellation of its special use permit and removed all its structures and amenities from Wing Mountain.

No other concessionaire will operate at the site in the Highway 180 corridor this coming winter and parking will not be allowed there, nor along the forest road that accesses it, the agency said.

The Forest Service said it plans to begin public outreach in 2018 to gather feedback on what recreational experiences the public desires for the Wing Mountain and to consider community concerns about traffic congestion and related issues.

The agency said only that it “may” seek a new concessionaire to manage the area in the future.

The Forest Service noted several challenges that faced Wing Mountain’s operator, including the fact that the area was open in the winter only when there was sufficient natural snow for sledding. It was not allowed to make snow. When it was open, the area frequently reached its 500-car capacity and had to close its gates to additional guests. Sometimes it saw up to 1,200 vehicles per day.

Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott, whose district includes the Highway 180 corridor, was doubtful that the Wing Mountain area could support another commercially run snowplay operation in the future, given “the financial challenges, poor infrastructure and road access, and given that the cinders, which form the hill, are continually being depleted from this location,” he wrote in an email.

“Add the uncertainty of climate change and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is very difficult to get new operators at any location in the County or on Forest Service lands,” Babbott wrote. “My sense is this may turn into a more unorganized winter recreation area, which may bring more impact to traffic and littering of public lands.”

As far as implications for congestion and safety issues along Highway 180, Babbott said Wing Mountain’s closure has some potential to reduce overall vehicle trips in the corridor, but it won’t significantly change peak congestion gridlock. Cars headed to the Wing Mountain snowplay area represent 5 percent to 10 percent of the total traffic on Highway 180, he said.

“Time will tell if closing Wing Mountain reduces congestion or simply provides fewer off-highway parking options and recreational opportunities,” Babbott wrote.

He said he fears the closure may bring more negative impacts to neighborhoods along the Highway 180 corridor.

If snowplay operations were to restart at the Wing Mountain site, Babbott said one option he would like to see considered is requiring patrons to travel there by transit.

SAW IT COMING?

The signs began last winter that Wing Mountain concessionaire Recreation Resource Management wanted out of the snowplay venture.

According to Brad Lasher, the manager at Wing Mountain last winter, the Forest Service asked Babbitt Ranches to manage Wing Mountain for the season. The company agreed to the temporary responsibility last year.

“Recreation Resource Management wants nothing to do with (Wing Mountain),” Lasher said in an interview in February.

Babbitt Ranches got into the snow recreation business in 2015 with the purchase of the Flagstaff Nordic Center, which it renamed the Arizona Nordic Village.

Wendell Johnson, who manages the Nordic Village, did not return a text message Thursday asking for comment on the latest developments with Wing Mountain. 

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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