In the few weeks since mailing 2,600 letters to Routt County residents and backcountry users, Routt National Forest District Ranger Kim Vogel has received dozens of comments.
There have been phone calls, letters, e-mails, and office visits. And Vogel isn't even the person to whom comments were supposed to be directed.
The letters sparking such a response proposed ways to manage winter recreation on the Routt National Forest and asked for input. The areas targeted include Rabbit Ears Pass, Buffalo Pass and North Routt County.
As more powderhounds use the forests, nonmotorized and motorized winter recreation uses need to be separated to some extent, Vogel said. Designating different areas for different uses would give backcountry skiers and snowshoers peace and quiet as they trek through the forests, while still leaving space for the snowmobilers' fast-paced play.
The letter, sent jointly from the U.S. Forest Service, Routt County and Colorado State Parks, included maps of proposed nonmotorized and mixed-use boundaries. The letter also said the Forest Service would need to impose fees for users and would be considering parking, camping and other access areas as it updates its forest plan.
A series of public meetings is scheduled to begin Monday, but many recreationalists already are giving their opinions.
"It's a mix of responses," Vogel said, adding that many responders weren't dissatisfied with the proposals.
Some backcountry skiers say they approve of the proposed nonmotorized-use areas, while others say they need more nonmotorized space.
Some snowmobilers say they're willing to give up some terrain to nonmotorized users to improve the overall experience, while others balk at losing what they call some of the best places to play.
Although there is no debate over the plan to impose user fees, changes are expected to be made to other proposals, Vogel said.
Most criticism at this point, Vogel said, can be answered by pointing to the public process to come.
"We're going to take a look at all of (those responses) through the process," Vogel said. "It's far from set in stone."
George Kostiuk and Bob Mayfield, both on the board of directors of the Routt Powder Riders snowmobile club, said the club takes issue with various proposals in the Forest Service's initial letter.
Their first complaint is that the Forest Service will begin to implement fees. The club gets grants and donates volunteer labor to maintain trails, so its members will be paying to use trails it has been instrumental in making and maintaining, Mayfield said.
Another problem is that areas proposed for nonmotorized use are some that snowmobilers don't want to be cut off from, Kostiuk said.
One proposed nonmotorized area east of the Steamboat Ski Area is a place snowmobilers say is used very little by skiers but heavily by snowmobilers. That area, Kostiuk said, provides a looping trail with phenomenal views of the valley that he has driven to since the 1970s.
"There's only one place that you get this view," he said.
A third problem, the snowmobilers said, is that they don't feel the separation of uses is even necessary. Mayfield referred to a 2000 survey done by a winter recreation task force established by the Forest Service that showed only 2 percent of nonmotorized users felt their experience in the area was poor or fair.
"(The U.S. Forest Service) is really exaggerating the problem," Mayfield said.
The snowmobile group drafted a letter this week expressing those concerns and others that it plans to send to the U.S. Forest Service.
On another side of the debate is Leslie Lovejoy, executive director of Friends of the Routt Backcountry, which is a chapter of the Backcountry Skiers Alliance.
She said that the U.S. Forest Service map showing the separation of motorized and nonmotorized uses should have more area designated as nonmotorized.
"Our map (of nonmotorized areas) is much bigger," Lovejoy said, referring to a map the organization spent a year and a half creating.
A problem with plans for North Routt County, she said, is that the nonmotorized area under consideration is too small. Before problems in those areas develop, she said, management plans should be made.
The backcountry skiers group also disagrees with a proposed motorized trail that would cut across the face of Hahn's Peak, what historically has been a prime skiing area, Lovejoy said.
Her suggestion is to encourage people to comment and work toward a change.
"We can't let this go the way it's going, it's a mess out there, it really is," Lovejoy said. "If we don't look at this whole problem proactively, we're going to be in big trouble in five years."
Other users expressed excitement about the upcoming talks and planning meetings, and said they wanted to support the U.S. Forest Service in any way possible.
Dave Barnes, general manager for Blue Sky West, which operates under the name Steamboat Powdercats, brings skiers and snowboarders up Buffalo Pass to find fresh tracks.
He said he supported the opportunity to weigh in on management plans.
"We think it's a great process and we think it's much needed," Barnes said. "The Forest Service should be given as much support from all groups as possible."
Jon Hawes is president of the Steamboat Lake Snow Club, a group of motorized and nonmotorized users in North Routt.
The club, he said, submitted its map of suggested uses to the U.S. Forest Service last winter, and also created a parking plan for the area about three years ago.
The proposed Forest Service map is similar to the club's map, Hawes said, but there are differences.
The club is excited that winter recreation plans are being considered and updated. Club members also are happy to see Routt County involved in the process, Hawes said, because the county controls parking. Managing parking, the club has said, is the key to managing use in any area.
Through the process, the club's main hope is that the Forest Service listens to the voice of the majority, and not to the several people with an extreme stance on either side of the issue. In some statistical calculations, the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent are tossed out, Hawes said, and he hopes officials take a similar approach to finding middle ground in this issue.
"There's a percentage of skiers and there's a percentage of snowmobilers that will never agree, and we recognize that as a snow club," he said. "Hopefully, decisions will be based on the majority."
To some of the comments she's already heard, Vogel has several responses:
First, fees are necessary to keep uses separate and so will be part of any management plan.
Second, the conflicts between different users are real and need to be addressed.
Third, the map of proposed use areas was made mostly with the input of the winter recreation task force, which included nonmotorized and motorized users.
As public meetings begin, Vogel said all comments would be taken but that the Forest Service most appreciates comments that not only highlight a problem but also suggest solutions.
Instead of just saying that a non-motorized area shouldn't be where it is, give an alternative location to put it, she said. Or, instead of just saying that a motorized access shouldn't be allowed, give another route to get to that area.
"Folks that tell us, 'I don't like this,' then (need to) tell us what would work," she said.
"Give us some options to work with there, give us some suggestions. And they need to be doable suggestions."