Buff Pass permit appeal denied

Officer upholds decision to grant access

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— The appeal of a five-year permit renewal allowing Steamboat Powder Cats/Blue Sky West to operate Snow Cat backcountry ski tours on Buffalo Pass has been denied by the regional U.S. Forest Service office.

Conservation groups Colorado Wild and Friends of the Routt Backcountry filed the appeal on Oct. 7 and were in negotiations with Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel not long after that. First indications were that an agreement would be made instead of moving the appeal to the regional office in Laramie, Wyo., for an official decision.

Rocky Smith, forest watch coordinator for Colorado Wild, said negotiations fell through. On Nov. 25, Forest Service appeal-deciding officer Richard Stern upheld the decision to grant the permit, not swaying to the appeal.

Stern said he "found no evidence of the decision violating laws, regulations or policies."

"We are now just thinking over what we might do," Smith said.

The groups have the option to sue, but Smith said that hasn't been discussed.

The appeal stated the permit wrongfully allowed a mile-long snow road to be built off a primary access road this winter. It would go right by a suggested nonmotorized area called Bear Tree Ridge, established last year. It could encourage snowmobilers to access the area and further aggravate a skier-snowmobiler conflict there.

The appeal also cited the company's decision to allow 2,200 people to access the pass in a season, compared to its last five-year permit that allowed 1,200.

Recreational planner for the Forest Service Ed Patalik said he wants to be sensitive to the concerns of nonmotorized users on Buffalo Pass, but he was pleased with the appeal decision.

According to the permit, Steamboat Powder Cats/Blue Sky West will have to mitigate for the proper uses in the area. In other words, the company has to follow measures laid out by the Forest Service and a user task force and monitor use on the pass. It will put up safety and directional signs, provide trailhead information on ethics and inform people where the nonmotorized areas are, among several other tasks.

"We attempt to balance all the uses and demands on the national forest, and the commercial services Blue Sky West provides are an appropriate part of the equation. At the same time, we are very sensitive to the concerns of the appellants," Patalik said. "The mitigations contained in the original decision notice represent the most concerted effort to date to monitor and address use conflicts on Buffalo Pass."

If the mitigation doesn't work, adjustments can be made. The permit has annual reviews and the snow road in question is allowed to exist only for three years before going through a permit review.

"It's not permanent. We have to prove ourselves," Steamboat Powder Cats/Blue Sky West Cats General Manager David Barnes said.

Steamboat Powder Cats/Blue Sky West employees are on Buffalo Pass six days a week in the winter, and it makes sense the company will monitor use there, Barnes said.

It also makes sense to be good neighbors, he added.

"I think the nonmotorized users will find us a huge asset to their cause," he said. "We are up there every day."

Indeed, Smith said in general, he doesn't have a problem with Steamboat Powder Cats/Blue Sky West operating on Buffalo Pass. However, he is concerned about the growing user conflicts between snowmobilers and backcountry skiers.

Barnes said he knows it's getting to be a heated issue.

"Everybody's piece of the pie is a very valuable thing when it comes to the backcountry," Barnes said.

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