Forest Service seeking balance between skiers, snowmobilers

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— The U.S. Forest Service is working on a plan that would close portions of the Routt National Forest to snowmobiles.

It hasn't been determined if the "winter transportation planning" would encompass the entire 1.1 million acres of the forest or just concentrate on areas where winter use has increased greatly over the past five years, Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said.

"We are going to be meeting pretty soon to decide what the scope of this is," Vogel said.

A plan for a portion of the forest could be in place as early as next winter.

One for the entire forest could take more than a year to complete, she said.

Conflicts between snowmobilers, skier-snowmobilers and traditional skiers have increased over the past few years as more and more people travel to Routt County to venture into the backcountry during the winter.

As use has increased, so has snowmobile technology, allowing riders to get to places they didn't go in the past. Many skiers are looking for a pristine experience and good powder but compete with snowmobilers for the use of some areas.

"Times have changed. The past is the past and we are managing for the future," Vogel said.

That means managing winter recreation so it is dispersed throughout the forest, not just concentrated in a few areas, she said.

Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears and areas in North Routt County, for example, have a high density of snowmobilers and skiers.

"What we are trying to do is to be able to separate uses so that we can provide a good experience for all users of the forest," Vogel said.

She said one thing is for sure everyone will have the opportunity to recreate in the Routt National Forest. Skiers and snowmobilers may just have to go to some different places in the future.

"It's more of seeking a balance of what the ground can tolerate," Vogel said.

The Routt Winter Task Force, a group of mixed users facilitated by the Forest Service, helped implement suggested nonmotorized areas on Rabbit Ears Pass in 2000 and on Buffalo Pass last year.

Task force member Jim Linville, who also is a board member of the nonmotorized group Friends of the Routt Backcountry, said the suggested-use areas were not working.

"We think there really needed to be a stronger statement," he said.

But restricting snowmobilers in some area isn't a guarantee they will stay clear for skiers, Linville said.

"I think it's critical to keep communications with the local snowmobile club," he said.

The Forest Service will have to enforce any closures it makes, the extent of which will be determined by its budget, Vogel said.

The snowmobilers of the Routt Powder Riders Club have been open to working with the suggested-use areas but typically resisted any official closures.

Gary Eubank, a member the club and owner of a snowmobile store, said he wouldn't comment about access restrictions until he sees a map of the closures.

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