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Out-of-bounds skiing unwise but not illegal, officials say

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RENO, Nev. — Ducking under the boundary ropes or scooting around the gates to ski and snowboard in the backcountry outside a developed resort might not be a very bright move, but it's not against federal law, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"We do not consider it a crime to leave the permit area. It goes against our grain to close the national forests," Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes told The Associated Press on Monday.

"Our guiding principle is that national forests are public lands and we should not restrict access to the public's lands," Mathes said. "If someone wants to leave the ski area boundary and ski into the backcountry, that's their prerogative as a citizen. We do not consider it a crime."

For some skiers and riders bored with following downhill tracks, the lure of pristine backcountry powder is too much to resist, even though it's in areas that are not controlled for avalanches or routinely patrolled.

"It's still a risk. You're on your own. Some people like that," Mathes said. "But if people aren't prepared, it could be the last mistake they make."

The mistakes prompted three rescue efforts this month at Heavenly Mountain Resort, which straddles the California-Nevada line south of Lake Tahoe, after the skiers exited through gates to the backcountry. All were found uninjured and no citations have been issued.

That wasn't the case last month in Colorado, where Summit County Sheriff John Minor — unimpressed with dramatic survival stories — issued citations for violations of the state Ski Safety Act, with $300 fines to two snowboarders who got lost outside Keystone Resort's boundaries.

Minor wants the unsafe skiing fine to be raised to $500 to make it more of a deterrent.

The Colorado act was passed in 1979, and Minor said that while $300 was a lot of money then, it needs to be increased.

Minor, whose district covers Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin ski areas, agreed that venturing onto public lands is legal, but said the Colorado law is aimed at people who ski into areas that have been marked closed, usually because of some hazard.

"There's avalanche danger, deadfall trees, sink holes — you can get yourself in extreme danger," he said.

Mathes agreed that "closed" means just that within the boundaries of the ski area.

"If they get into a bad situation, there are only two possible outcomes: The individuals will either die or they will have to pay for a very expensive rescue," Mathes said.

In Nevada's Douglas County, where part of Heavenly is located, Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Mezzetta said the Forest Service does not consider out-of-bounds skiers a problem because it does not have to foot the bill for search-and-rescue operations or send out volunteers who risk their lives.

A Douglas County statute prohibits bypassing a man-made barrier designed to prevent skiers from leaving the resort, but many ski resort borders are marked only by a sign that says "ski area boundary."

"We are not saying anyone who goes out into the backcountry is in violation of the law," Mezzetta said. "If they don't intentionally bypass a man-made barrier, then they are not in violation."

Bob Morris, chief deputy district attorney for Nevada's Douglas County, who helped write the skier responsibility code, said the county has a right to make such a law.

The Forest Service disagreed, and pointed out in a story first reported by the Tahoe Daily Tribune that the county can recover search and rescue costs through civil action.

"We have jurisdiction over federal land," Mathes insisted.