Ready or not

New boundaries govern Buffalo, Rabbit Ears passes

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After seven years of debate, backcountry recreationists are adjusting to new boundaries that enforce the way they play.

"It's time for us to focus on moving on and making this a really great place for anybody to come visit, no matter what they want to do," Leslie Lovejoy said. "It's ridiculous to dwell on what we didn't get."

Lovejoy is a member of a group called Friends of the Routt Back--country, which advocates on behalf of setting aside portions of the Routt National Forest exclusively for nonmotorized recreation. Her group is just one faction in an exchange of ideas that has been taking place since 1998. Snowmobilers, commercial snowcat outfitters and a growing breed of backcountry users -- "hybrids" who use snowmobiles to access backcountry ski and snowboard powder stashes ------ they're all in the mix.

Skiers don't want to hear the whine of snowmobiles, snowmobilers don't want to be constrained, hybrids are rugged individualists with secrets to keep, and so it goes.

The new Winter Recreation Manage--ment Plan approved by the Forest Service last summer is in effect on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes and is enforceable by law. The practical result is that boundary lines have been drawn to separate motorized and nonmotorized forms of recreation. And beginning Jan. 1, backcountry users on Buffalo Pass will be required to carry a free permit. By the winter of 2006-07, they will have to pay an undetermined fee for that permit.

The new boundaries set aside several thousand acres of terrain on the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass for non-motorized use. At the same time, they allow a loop of more than 90 miles (70.6 of them groomed) of snowmobile trails that stretch from Gore Pass in the south, north to Rabbit Ears pass and up the eastern side of the Park Range to the southern end of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

Yet, not everyone was completely happy with the final plan, or perhaps no one was. Most of the discontent seems to be focused on Buffalo Pass.

Lovejoy's group appealed the forest supervisor's decision this fall and lost. They thought the boundaries there did not set aside enough terrain on the north side of buffalo Pass road for non-motorized recreation. Marc Satre of the Routt Powder Riders said pure snowmobilers effectively have lost terrain in that area because uncertainty about a plan that limits them to ride on designated routes only.

"We don't really know what's going to happen," Satre said. "We were initially thinking designated trails could be anything that had been used in the past or anything being groomed by snowcats. Now, we're hearing that they will mark some (trails) off all together."

Until the Forest Service installs signage on Buffalo Pass and Blue Sky West begins operating for the winter, snowmobilers are in a state of uncertainty about what they are allowed to do this month on Buffalo Pass, Satre said.

The growing popularity of backcountry sports in an area of the national forest that describes a rough arc around Steamboat Springs to the east has resulted in conflicting uses and even safety issues, District Ranger Kim Vogel said.

She said Forest Service personnel are working to get signage up and boundary maps in place. In the meantime, the map can be found on the Web site -- www.fs.fed.us/r2/mbr. Vogel said she's confident that maps and signs will succeed in clearly delineating the boundaries, but the various backcountry groups will have to show consideration for one another to make the system work

"Our goal is for everyone to have an opportunity for quality recreation," she said. "We want the hybrid users to have a place to go, we want skiers to have places to hike to where they'll have a variety of experiences, we want the snowcat permitee to be able to take its clients to powder skiing, and we want strict snowmobilers" to have plenty of terrain to explore.

The Forest Service will have a greater presence on Buffalo Pass this winter, Vogel said, as staff members monitor the situation and check users for their permits after the first of the year.

As more people attempt to access the backcountry in the Buffalo Pass area in the future, Vogel said, the Forest Service would study the opportunities to use permit fees to create pullouts and trails and even temporary parking areas to ease traffic congestion.

"The trails see different modes of travel, and there are rises where it's difficult to see," Vogel said. "The snowcats are slower and less maneuverable, so they have the right of way."

Ultimately, the fee system will pay for better parking areas and toilet facilities, Vogel said.

At present, there are no plans to invoke a fee permit on Rabbit Ears Pass, but Vogel would not rule it out in the future.

"We don't see the amount of user conflict and safety issues on Rabbit Ears pass," she said. "We won't look at it for a few years."

The permit is printed with a list of backcountry regulations, and the Forest Service intends for recreationists using Buffalo Pass to heed them.

"It's our contract with them," she said. "They are bound by that contract. We need (people) to do these things and to cooperate with everyone else out there."

Lovejoy said her group is already applying for grants to bolster the Forest Service's ability to post signs and educate the public.

"There are a lot of pluses (in the plan)," she said. "I'm just happy we got it done."

Vogel said there is a misperception among the general backcountry public that as taxpayers, they have a right to use any snow trails that exist on Buffalo Pass, and that just isn't the case, she said. Much of the recreation currently taking place wouldn't be possible if Blue Sky West wasn't operating on Buffalo Pass, she added.

"Blue Sky West is a permitted operator -- there's always going to be somebody who is footing the bill. That behooves us all to make it work."

Satre contends snowmobilers and hybrids were quietly putting in their own routes to a greater extent than was widely known before the commercial operator came to the forefront.

The next round of information exchange will come along when the Forest Service and backcountry users tackle a similar process with North Routt County. But given the current state of her office's budget for recreation planning, that won't happen for several years, at least, Vogel said.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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