N. Routt plans for winter use

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Skiers have been dreaming of fast, graceful turns through thigh-high powder. Snowmobilers have been falling asleep with the imagined kiss of cool wind on their faces as they speed through open meadows on their tuned machines.

It's winter in Routt County.

While some are counting down the days until the ski mountain opens, others are looking out their windows, waiting until enough snow has piled up to open the backcountry for business.

With the cooler temperatures have come heated discussions about how winter recreation in the backcountry can and should be managed.

A focus of those discussions is North Routt County, where the Routt National Forest and the Steamboat Lake and Pearl Lake state parks offer almost 150 miles of multiple-use trails, along with a 15-kilometer nonmotorized, high-quality groomed trail.

It's a quiet winter escape for many people. It also is often considered the only option for a secluded backcountry experience as Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass see more and more traffic.

There aren't problems with winter recreation uses in the area yet, people working on the issue have said. But the work sessions and discussions are important to make a framework that prevents problems before they happen.

Planning

In 1999, Routt County officials and residents, business owners and others in the North Routt community drafted the Upper Elk River Valley Community Plan to give a vision for the community's future.

It included a short section on recreational uses. Now, county officials aim to expand that section and create a larger North Routt recreation plan.

Work on that plan was slated to begin last summer, Routt County planner and project manager Chad Phillips said.

But a key issue delaying that start was obtaining access for motorized users from Steamboat Lake State Park into National Forest land. That issue has been temporarily solved with a possible yearlong agreement with a local landowner.

The North Routt community, Routt County commissioners and planning commissioners, state officials, U.S. Forest Service representatives and winter recreation groups all will have a part in drafting the plan, which could be finished in the next year.

"There's a lot of energy, a lot of focus on this from many different interests," Phillips said. "It's great to have that momentum up front. ... It's already there, and most everybody has the same goal, and that's rare."

The goal is to create a plan that addresses conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized users and between residents and recreational users, before conflicts grow and become unmanageable.

The Routt County Master Plan also states that one of the county's goals is to maintain and preserve rural character. That means the county wants to be sure the North Routt area is not overused, Phillips said.

Thoughtful planning

Bryan Heselbach, president of the Hahn's Peak Village Homeowners Association, said residents support a well-thought-out process.

Although many wish they could shut the gate behind them, Heselbach said residents know growth in recreation is unavoidable. They just want the growth process to be well planned, he said.

"Where we want to see it go is wherever the proper, thoughtful, timely process takes it," he said.

He also said the town was not opposed to snowmobiling, as many residents use the machines to get around during the winter or to enjoy the backcountry. But, he said, the residents don't want to see its peaceful feel ruined.

Nor do they want snowmobiles roaring down the town's main street, as they did a decade ago, when Steamboat Lake Outfitters had its base on Colorado Highway 129 just outside of Hahn's Peak Village.

Crucial compromise

If a plan is going to succeed, it's going to require cooperation among users and residents, said Jon Hawes, president of the Steamboat Lake Snow Club and owner of Dutch Creek Guest Ranch.

The snow club, which formed about six years ago, involves snowmobilers and skiers. "We're one of the first clubs that really was pushing for the cooperation of the motorized and nonmotorized communities," Hawes said.

Typically, snowmobilers and skiers are pitted against each other in battles over use, with snowmobilers wanting to be sure that trails are not designated for nonmotorized use, while skiers want separate trails to ensure trips free of noise and smells.

By working as a group before big problems arise, North Routt might be able to avoid conflicts that have plagued areas on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass, as well as other known backcountry spots across the state.

The group drafted a winter-use parking plan last year and also has a map of trails with suggested uses for each trail.

Parking, Hawes said, is key to controlling and managing recreation use in the area. It helps disperse users throughout the area and can cap the number of snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers.

"The fear that we're developing a snow paradise where in 20 years from now there are going to be thousands and thousands of snowmobiles, I don't see that happening," he said.

Thousands of snowmobiles

About eight years ago, the winter use on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Pass was manageable, said Kim Vogel, district ranger for Routt National Forest. Then in the late 1990s, Routt County was one of the only spots getting snow.

People figured out that it wasn't too far to travel to ski Rabbit Ears and other nearby areas. A lot of the newcomers didn't know about the suggested uses for the area, which were created in the 1980s to make the east side of Rabbit Ears mostly motorized and the west side mostly nonmotorized.

A task force to examine the use re-formed and started working, but the number of visitors quickly became overwhelming.

This winter, Forest Service workers will examine the area and its uses and make recommendations for the future, Vogel said.

North Routt, Vogel said, is in the same situation that Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes were in the early 1990s, when users separated themselves based on gentleman's agreements.

"I think it's going to come whether we want it or not," Vogel said. "We can choose to either manage it well and to the benefit of the community, or we can choose to be victims of it and let other people make decisions for us."

A linking trail

A key step to preventing problems in the future is a trail that provides another link between Steamboat Lake State Park with the National Forest, said Steamboat Lake State Park Manager Ken Brink. That trail would allow recreational users to access about two-thirds of the forest's trails from the state park's parking lot.

The park purchased a strip of land next to Hahn's Peak Village for a trail, but Brink said it did not want to use that land for snowmobiles in the winter.

Most of the village's residents did not want the trail to be open to snowmobilers, because of the noise and disturbance snowmobiles would make.

But after a year of negotiations and looking into alternatives, a temporary access agreement with a local landowner was proposed.

Edna Quealy and Alice Shaffer offered an agreement for access this winter for snowmobilers through their property, which sits next to National Forest land and can be accessed from Colorado Highway 129.

Brink said an agreement could be finished within the next few weeks, and that the park would pursue a more long-term agreement through the purchase of property.

"This trail is really the linchpin of four or five major issues," Brink said.

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