The U.S. Forest Service's final decision about how to manage winter recreation on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes has been delayed but is expected by early spring.
A decision was expected by the end of January, but internal reviews and the large amount of public comments have contributed to the delay, Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said.
"We're not finished yet," Ritschard said. "We received a lot of public comments, and we've carefully analyzed all of those, and we're working diligently toward a decision that best meets public expectations and environmental considerations."
As soon as the decision is made, it will be available to the public, she said. The decision will be in place for the winter of 2005-06.
"It will be finalized in plenty of time to implement it by next winter," Ritschard said.
In the meantime, Forest Service officials are encouraging skiers and snowmobilers to obey suggested-use boundaries on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass. The suggested boundaries have been in place since the 1980s.
Ritschard said the Forest Service appreciates the time the public has spent to provide "well-thought-out comments and suggestions."
"We want to assure them that we've diligently considered those," she said.
The Forest Service is putting a lot of time into making clear, detailed maps of the chosen alternative to place in parking lots and trail heads, one step to encouraging people to follow the chosen alternative, Ritschard said.
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 the public-comment period closed in the fall, Forest Service officials have been considering the more than 1,000 comments about the different options.
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" one set aside some portion of forest for only 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 put to the side until a management plan is chosen.