No changes for Buff, Rabbit Ears

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Snowmobilers and skiers who head out to the backcountry of the Routt National Forest won't find any big changes or new rules this year.

However, there could be changes for the 2005-2006 winter, as the U.S. Forest Service plans to make decisions about how to manage winter recreation on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass by January.

In the meantime, U.S. Forest Service officials are encouraging skiers and snowmobilers to obey suggested use boundaries on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass. Those boundaries have been in place since the 1980s.

"We hope that folks will recognize the situation and realize that we all need to play together and get along and respect other users," said Jon Halverson, wilderness manager for the Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears district. "There's plenty of land out there -- we can all play together."

Five alternatives for managing winter recreation on Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass were put out for public comment last summer, after months of public meetings and research.

Since public comment closed this fall, U.S. Forest Service officials have been considering the more than 1,000 comments about the different options.

They plan to have a decision about which option or combination of options they will choose by mid-January, and then they will implement that plan during the next winter. Originally, they had hoped to choose and implement a management plan for this winter.

Representatives from the most vocal winter recreation groups have varied opinions about which alternative the U.S. Forest Service should choose. All alternatives except for the "no action" option 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.

The discussion about whether fees could be charged to enforce boundaries or other rules has been pushed aside until a management plan is chosen.

In the meantime, officials are reminding winter recreationalists of suggested boundaries, as well as the legal closures to motorized uses surrounding wilderness areas.

As winter recreation has gained in popularity, violations of those legal boundaries have increased. Recently, some decreases have been noticed, possibly because of more public education and enforcement of the wilderness boundaries.

For instance, Halverson reported about six violations a day in 1998, compared with 16 a day in 2002. Last winter, that number crept back down after a stepped up education and enforcement program. Violators face a fine up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

As much snow has yet to fall, U.S. Forest Service officials also are reminding snowmobilers that it's best not to run a machine on less than a foot of snow, as doing so can tear up vegetation and cause soil damage and erosion. It's also best for motorized users to stick to improved roads and trails, officials said.

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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