Backcountry users mainly non-locals

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— A recent survey shed some light on who is using the Routt National Forest, but for those who ski, those who snowmobile and those who do both, there is still no clear consensus on who can do what and where.

Last winter, 77 percent of the people surveyed who went into the Routt National Forest did not live in Routt County.

The winter recreation survey conducted by the Routt Winter Task Force last year was given to 274 people 115 skiers and snowshoers and 159 snowmobilers. Almost all of the people were on Rabbit Ears Pass.

Of the skiers and snowshoers, 36 percent came from the Front Range, while 37 percent of them lived in Routt County.

That contrasted the snowmobilers. About 56 percent of those users came from the Front Range, while 12 percent lived in Routt County.

"This confirmed our belief that the majority of the motorized users came from the Front Range," said Ed Patalik, recreational planner for the Forest Service.

Patalik helps organize the Routt Winter Task Force, which is a group of backcountry users who are attempting to reach an agreement for motorized and nonmotorized use areas on different parts for the Routt National Forest in the winter. In the past few years, cross-country skiers and snowshoers have become concerned about snowmobilers tracking up the fresh powder in the backcountry.

Members of the task force include backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, hybrid users (who ride snowmobiles to get to slopes to ski or ride) and tracked snow machine operators who take skiers into backcountry for runs.

Last year, after much discussion, the group reaffirmed existing motorized and nonmotorized areas on Rabbit Ears Pass by putting up signs and boundary markers showing where the nonmotorized areas are.

After doing that, the task force organized the survey to give to the users to try to determine where they came from, in hopes of finding better ways to communicate with people.

He said the key to making motorized or nonmotorized boundaries work is educating the snowmobilers on where they can go. When the majority of them live out of town, that can be challenging.

"The local snowmobiling club helps by communicating with clubs on the Front Range," Patalik said.

He said the most positive results of the survey was that 98 percent of the people said they had a "good," "very good," "excellent" or "perfect time."

This winter, surveys will be distributed at Rabbit Ears Pass as well as Buffalo Pass.

"We'll hit them both pretty hard," Patalik said.

Recently, the task force has turned its focus to Buffalo Pass in hopes that different users will come to a consensus on how to manage backcountry recreation there. But a solution won't come without more discussion, Patalik said.

Along with snowmobilers and skiers conflicting on what areas should be designated for whom, the area is popular for hybrid users, who want to be able to sled to the backcountry and then have good vertical terrain to ski or snowboard down. Plus, Blue Sky West (formerly Powder Cats) takes skiers and snowboarders to the backcountry in tracked snow machines on Buffalo Pass.

Furthermore, access to Buffalo Pass is through one parking lot at Dry Lake Campgrounds, which commingles all of the users to one area. On Rabbit Ears, there are four parking lots for snowmobilers and four parking lots for nonmotorized users.

So far, nothing has been decided for Buffalo Pass, Patalik said.

Nonmotorized users have identified the north side of Buffalo Pass Road as a nonmotorized area. But an eastern boundary hasn't been identified, backcountry skier Jim Linville said.

Ideally, the nonmotorized users would like to have the complete north side of the road, including Soda Mountain, off limits to snowmobiles, he said.

"But nobody has been willing to agree on that," Linville said.

By the end of the winter, the nonmotorized group wants to have an area for themselves, he said.

Hybrid user Josh Freeman said it would be tough for him to see that much land marked off.

"I use everything on the north side of the road. In a way, they are trying to take everything away that I ski," Freeman said.

Many of the players involved want to wait until the survey at Buffalo Pass shows who the users are in the area. That would take at least a year.

"We want to make sure the problem is as bad as everyone is making it out to be," snowmobiler Gary Eubank said.

He said most snowmobilers wouldn't fight snowmobile restrictions if the need to do so can be proved through the surveys.

"We're reluctant to wait," Linville said.

He said the nonmotorized users are worried that use on Buffalo Pass will increase next year, making it more difficult to designate a nonmotorized area.

Hybrid user Ron Wendler said the problem can be solved with or without marking off land.

"Our main concern is educating people in the backcountry," he said.

Snowmobilers and hybrid users need to identify places that nonmotorized users want to ski and try to keep away.

Blue Sky West owner Toby Hemmerling agreed.

"Everyone is going to have to realize that we can all interact up there," he said.

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