SALT LAKE CITY — Snowboarders have wanted to "free" Alta for years.
On Wednesday, four of them and a group called Wasatch Equality filed a federal lawsuit on the Little Cottonwood Canyon resort, challenging its longstanding skiers-only policy.
A lawyer for the snowboarders said that because of Alta Ski Area's arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service, it must comply with the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Forest Service is also named as defendant.
"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," said Jonathan Schofield, an attorney with Parr Brown Gee and Loveless.
The ban excludes a "particular class of individuals from use and enjoyment of public land based on irrational discrimination against snowboarders," he said.
It pits those who stand sideways on a single "snowboard" against those who stand forward on "skis," creating hostility and divisiveness, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
After a blue-bird day on the slopes, crowds of skiers walked to their cars in the late afternoon, many of them insisting the resort is a better place without snowboarders. However, they say that without any malice toward snowboarders either.
"I don't know how it would change the atmosphere around here," said skier Neil Rosenberg of Salt Lake City. "I personally like that it's a skiers only resort," he said.
Alexey Pismenskiy, a Utah skier originally from Russia, agreed. He said he just feels safer in the skier-only environment. He explains that many snowboarders follow a different line on the hill than skiers do. When he skis among the snowboarders at other resorts, he doesn't feel the other people are moving in a predictable manner.
"For me it's just a security, a safety question," Pismenskiy said.
However, plaintiff Drew Hicken said there is no reason skiing and snowboarding can't coexist.
"We feel that it is time for Alta to let go of outdated prejudices that perpetuate a skier versus snowboarder mentality and allow everyone, regardless of whether they are skiers or snowboarders, to share the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," he said.
An Alta spokeswoman said the resort wants to gather more information before commenting on the lawsuit.
One out-of-state skier coming off the mountain Wednesday says Alta is for skiers.
"It's the only place left. Give it to 'em. Snowboarders go anywhere else you want to go, but leave Alta for the skiers," Kevin Hurley said. "Where we live, we gotta deal with snowboarders, and we'd rather deal with skiers."
Snowboarders have a reputation, deserved or not, for riding reckless and without regard for others on the mountain.
Diane Harrington, who snowboards and skis, called the lawsuit a "good idea."
"I think it should be figured out in the courts. I think it's OK that Alta restricts use of the lift, but I don't think it's fair that they keep people off (U.S.) Forest Service property," she said. "Our taxes pay for it equally. It's almost like discrimination of sorts."
In 1986, Beaver Mountain, Brighton and Park West (now The Canyons) were the only Utah resorts that allowed snowboarders on their chairlifts. Since then, all but Alta and Deer Valley have followed suit. Mad River Glen in Vermont is the third American resort that doesn't permit snowboarding.
By 1990, most major ski areas around the country allowed snowboarding, which became one of the fastest-growing winter sports.
Alta has not always prohibited snowboarding, according to the lawsuit. It allowed snowboarders to ride its chairlifts in the early 1980s, and Hicken and another plaintiff Richard Varga were among some of the first snowboarders at Alta.
But by the mid '80s, Alta "summarily" decided it would no longer allow snowboarders to access its terrain or ride its lifts, the lawsuit says. The policy was borne of "animus" or hostility toward snowboarders.
Alta operates under a Forest Service permit that states the public lands "shall remain open to the public for all lawful purposes," according to the lawsuit. The ski area covers 2,130 acres — 1,802 acres or 85 percent of which is on public land.