Pilot & Today Staff
Five alternatives for managing winter recreation on Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass, where more and more backcountry skiers and snowmobilers are coming each year, have been out for public review since late June.
Winter recreationalists from Routt County and beyond have pored over the alternatives, getting expert opinions and giving feedback to the U.S. Forest Service, in hopes that the agency can make a fair decision after years of often-heated public meetings on the issue.
More than 318 written comments have been submitted to the U.S. Forest Service. The period for public comment closes Monday, but that could be extended.
Representatives from the most vocal winter recreation groups have varied opinions on which alternative the U.S. Forest Service should choose. All alternatives except for the "no action" one, set aside some portion of forest for nonmotorized uses, or areas where no snowmachines are allowed. The rest of the area is for mixed uses, allowing motorized and nonmotorized users.
All groups are calling for a compromised solution, and everybody seems to want a fair shot at a good backcountry experience with plenty of fresh powder. But that doesn't mean they agree.
The Friends of the Routt Backcountry, which supports skiing and other non-motorized winter activities, stands behind what is called Alternative 2, which has the most nonmotorized area of all of the alternatives.
Routt Powder Riders, a group for snowmobilers, stands for the most part behind Alternative 3, which has the least nonmotorized area of all of the alternatives.
The other alternatives are not firmly supported by any one group: Alternative 1 would make official the previously suggested separation between motorized and nonmotorized uses in the areas, with a few other changes; Alternative 4 would be similar to Alternative 1 but gives a little more space for snowmobilers behind Mount Werner; while Alternative 5 is the "no action" alternative in which no boundaries are enforced.
U.S. Forest Service officials have not suggested a preferred alternative. Instead, they will analyze public comments and then come up with a solution for managing winter recreation in the two areas.
"We're looking for some sort of balance that will fit on the lay of the land and will allow people to recreate as safely as possible," said Kim Vogel, district ranger for the Routt National Forest.
"I can't think of a solution that won't cause people to compromise from every side. They're going to have to give up something. There are just way too many people who want a piece of it."
Jim Linville, who is on the board of directors for Friends of the Routt Backcountry, always loved skiing in the Buffalo Pass area. One of his top skiing days took place there.
But now, he and his friends stay away on powder days. By the time they are able to hike up to good pitches, "hybrid users" -- who snowmobile up and then ski and snowboard down -- already have torn up the snow, Linville said.
Those hybrid users should not be allowed in the area, Linville said, which is one reason he supports the extension of a nonmotorized area around Buffalo Pass as shown in the U.S. Forest Service's Alternative 2. The group does think that Steamboat Powder Cats should be able to operate in the area, and that hybrid users who drive out to one spot, then park their snowmobiles and ski down and hike back up, also should be permitted.
Steamboat Powder Cats general manager Dave Barnes said he also supports Alternative 2, because the company grooms the trails and roads and wants to be able to provide its customers a quality experience, which is more difficult with so many hybrid users. However, the company has suggested a compromised management plan for that area, in which hybrid users would be allowed on one side of the road but not on the other.
Friends of the Routt Backcountry also prefers Alternative 2 because on Rabbit Ears Pass, it extends the area designated for nonmotorized use to the east to hit a groomed snowmobile trail so monitoring whether snowmobilers are staying out of the non-motorized area would be possible, Linville said.
Parking and water quality issues also should be carefully considered before a final decision is made, members from the Friends of the Backcountry have said.
"I feel as though we have looked at it not in terms of 'We want this,'" said Leslie Lovejoy, with Friends of the Routt Backcountry. "We've looked at it in terms of environment ... and we've looked at it in terms of watershed."
Marc Satre is the president of Routt Powder Riders, which is "pretty much" behind Alternative 3.
The other alternatives close off areas to snowmobilers that they historically have been able to use.
Ideally, areas would not have to be closed off to snowmobilers, he said. But becasue the group wants to ensure there are some skier areas, Alternative 3 is best. That alternative provides the least amount of skier-only terrain, but still separates the uses to some extent.
Alternative 3 opens up part of the Hogan Park Trail to snowmobilers and allows them to ski up to the base of Mount Werner, where the Steamboat Ski Area is.
Setting aside too much terrain for skiers would be a bad choice, as it would be used infrequently, he said. And in the Routt Powder Riders' eyes, snowmobilers already have given up some terrain.
"We have really sacrificed, because we don't use Buffalo Pass," Satre said. Snowmobilers who are not hybrid users have decided to stay away from the area because the area has grown so much in popularity for hybrid users.
George Kostiuk, a member of Routt Powder Riders who has served as vice president before, said there is resentment from snowmobilers who think skiers are demanding terrain that they don't use much.
"If they're not using it, why should it stay vacant?" Kostiuk said. "I think a lot of people look at it as creating wilderness by another way."
Initially, district ranger Vogel said she hoped the management plan would be in place for this winter. Now, with the possible extension of the public comment period, that may not be possible.
After public comments are collected, a recommendation is given to the forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest, who makes the final decision. Then there is an appeal period.
"The bottom line is ... we may not be implementing this winter," Vogel said.
Whether user fees will be charged to help the Forest Service carry out the management plan of choice has yet to be decided, she said.
In the meantime, anyone interested in commenting on the recommendations is encouraged to do so. Vogel stressed that the Forest Service has not chosen any one of the five alternatives as a "preferred" one.
"Part of the reason that we haven't (chosen a preferred alternative) is it's very difficult to do that when so many of the issues are social, and they're not as clear cut as the environmental issues," Vogel said.
The draft report is available at www.fs.fed.us/r2/mbr/projects/rec, and paper copies are available at local libraries or on CD-ROM disks.
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