Meet the Man Protecting Your Backcountry Ski Stash

As head of the Winter Wildlands Alliance, Mark Menlove combines his career with his passion for exploring the backcountry.


“Mark is leaving us for a degree in poverty.” That’s what a Ski Utah board member said following Mark Menlove’s decision to leave his post after five years at the organization in 1999. Menlove was moving on in order to pursue a M.F.A in nonfiction writing at the University of Arizona. The current executive director for the Winter Wildlands Alliance, he remembers needing a change–a gift to himself as he recalls.

For years, Menlove worked within the ski industry. Growing up at the mouth of both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, he eventually attended the University of Utah to study communications. He landed his first job with the U.S. Ski Team as their communications manager, moved on to Park City Mountain Resort, and later became the president of Ski Utah. To some, this was the hey-day for ski resorts. “When I first got involved with the ski resort business, it was independent and family-owned places,” he says. “The owners had a maverick sense about them; it was fun, creative, and unconventional.” But this subsequently shifted and Menlove remembers that the corporatization of the resort business was the reason he needed a change.

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Upon returning to Park City after earning his graduate degree, he became increasingly immersed in backcountry skiing. This is when the opportunity arose with Winter Wildlands Association–an organization he’s been with since 2004. Throughout the years, Menlove has expanded the organization, both in terms of its reach and its recognition throughout the outdoor industry by working with various stakeholders to ensure public land management recognizes the needs and desires of winter backcountry users. Their accomplishments include tackling conflicts between snowmobilers and backcountry skiers; working with local grassroots organizations on land management issues; introducing kids to the outdoors; and organizating a backcountry film festival that gathers the ski community to celebrate the human powered experience.

If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for work, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that I work in the world of backcountry winter sports, and I work to protect the places and promote those experiences where they take place. My job is an intersection of recreation and conservation.

And then some people would say, well what’s backcountry skiing…?

What is a typical day like for you?
One of the great things is there aren’t many typical days. We work with 35 different grassroots organizations throughout the country. From places where we don’t have a group but rather one really engaged backcountry skier, to groups working together to protect the remaining parcels in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, to skiers who are drafting winter management plans for the first time such as in Plumas National Forest. We’ve also started a snow-school site in Boulder, Colorado to help people get involved with snow science.

A lot of my day is keeping the doors open. Fundraising is a big part, and it’s fun and rewarding to create these relationship with brands and proactive foundations that support our cause–it’s an arena we’ve been successful with. When I started, there was very little support for Winter Wildlands Association and we’ve built credibility with those brands to the point that we get solid support now. I’m always working to continue to build those relationships, so I’m keeping in touch with them day to day, and letting them know what we’re doing to build awareness.

There’s a certain amount of sitting down, whether it’s budgets or looking over a new NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) or EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) document. But it’s a good mix. We value getting outside and immersing ourselves with what we’re trying to protect. I get away from the office on a regular basis, and everyone here does, too. I’ll break away early and go for a ride, a ski, or fish, and pick up work later on. It’s not a 9-5 job. The work is there when it needs to be done, and there is a lot of weekend and night work too, but the strength is to show the passion for our mission.

How does your job affect someone’s day?
At the very pinnacle, I hope that my job affects a fellow skier who can go out and find untracked snow in that kind of quiet reverent experience in the backcountry. I hope that they find that experience they’re looking for. That’s the ultimate.

What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
U.S. Ski Team Director of Communications. When I was in college at the University of Utah, studying journalism and mass communications, there was a public relations class and at that time the communications manager of Snowbird came and spoke about his job. As this guy was talking, I said to myself–that’s the job I want.

That era of the ski industry was special–it was a magical time. Even when I moved to communications at Park City, we had a small staff and a family-owned resort. My boss Craig Badami’s motto was: “when in doubt ski, and if you ever think about cancelling a meeting to go skiing you should go skiing.” It was a great atmosphere and his dad Nick was the smartest business man I’ve ever been around.

How does someone get your job?
For me it was fortuitous. There are a lot of people in the conservation world that go to work for a nonprofit with the idea of that’s what they wanted to do. For me I didn’t have that desire, but I did have the direct connection to protect these winter landscapes that are important to me. When I interview someone, my first question is, what is your personal connection to our mission? I want someone here for the work we do, not just a nonprofit group. Someone gets my job by being passionate about the mission, and the backcountry, along with the skills that apply.

What are the pros of your job?
Definitely the community I get to be a part of, the world of backcountry skiers. There is an immediate connection with a fellow backcountry skier, just being a part of that whether it’s a skier or a brand. Those relationships are really valuable and cool. I like being involved in new initiatives, and creating a more holistic part of the backcountry community.

What are the cons?
Sometimes I can be a target for someone else’s frustrations. I do think that’s another area where we’ve made a lot of progress, but there will always be rhetoric from a group saying that Winter Wildlands wants to take away your access. At first I took that personally, and then I made an effort to fix it. For example, this year I spoke at a meeting for a group called Sled Warriors. Their whole website used war metaphors and language attacking Winter Wildlands… I went to their meeting and said “I’m not your enemy and I don’t think you’re mine. Lets talk and find a common ground…” I then invited a few leaders in the sled community to speak at our Winter Wildlands Advocacy Conference.

The cons are basically taking shots from people for the work you do. It’s hard sometimes.

Photos courtesy of Mark Menlove

 

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