The U.S. Forest Service has decided not to extend the deadline for public comments on plans to manage winter recreation on Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass.
That means the chance to comment on the five management alternatives officially ended Monday.
"We have hundreds of comments, so we feel like the people who cared have contacted us and let us know what they think," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rob Sexton said.
The alternatives have been available for public review since late June. More than 318 written comments had been submitted to the Forest Service as of last week. Sexton said he expects the final count to be much higher.
"It's a huge issue because of the numbers of people who use this area for winter recreation, so I don't think we were surprised by the number of comments, nor disappointed," Sexton said. "We expected a large number of comments, and that's what happened."
Increasing popularity of the areas and accompanying conflicts between different users were the impetus for the update, officials have said.
Although the public comment period will not be extended, the Forest Service most likely will not have a plan in place for this winter, Sexton said.
Officials first will sort through the comments and look for trends and key points, with a decision expected by October. Then an appeal period will begin, and a final decision likely won't come until January.
"So (the decision) probably won't be applied until the following winter," Sexton said.
Representatives from the most vocal winter recreation groups have varied opinions on which alternative the 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.
Alternative 1 would make official the previously suggested separation between motorized and non-motorized uses in the areas, with a few other changes. Of the alternatives, alternative 2 sets aside the largest area exclsively for nonmotorized users. Alternative 3 sets aside the smallest area not open for motorized users. Alternative 4 is similar to Alternative 1 but gives a little more space for snowmobilers behind Mount Werner. Alternative 5 is the "no action" alternative in which no boundaries are enforced.
The Forest Service has not yet suggested a preferred alternative, but instead will analyze public comments and then come up with a solution for managing winter recreation in the two areas.
The draft report is online 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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