Bike tour companies want access to Routt National Forest

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— The demand is there, but bike tour operators say current regulations have kept them from offering guided mountain bike rides on local U.S. Forest Service land.

When J.R. Thompson started Spindle 1 Bike Tours in Steamboat Springs four years ago, the former professional mountain biker was hoping to offer more than road biking trips, which have become the staple of his business. He said he met with the Forest Service but was told a permit could not be issued for his proposed mountain bike trips on Forest Service land. A Forest Service official said last week that permitted bike tours still may be a couple of years away.

“This is a topic I’ve got plenty of personal interactions with,” Thompson said.

He envisions being able to show off the area’s premier trails to visitors who are unfamiliar with the region and hesitant to explore on their own. That includes popular rides like the 26-mile Continental Divide Trail that starts at Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass and shoots riders out at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.

“That would be something we would want to showcase,” Thompson said.

He said local businesses also have approached him about guiding or providing support and gear for company retreats.

“That service would be a great benefit, for sure,” Thompson said.

Joe Solomon, president of Steamboat-based Iconic Adventures, said his company also has been unsuccessful in offering mountain bike tours on Forest Service land.

“We’ve looked into it a number of times, and the permits are so tough to get,” Solomon said.

The difficulties are not just with local forest lands. Just this past summer, Solomon said, his company was planning a trip in the San Juan National Forest between Durango and Telluride, but they were unsuccessful in getting the permits because it was a commercial, for-profit tour.

Kent Foster, U.S. Forest Service recreation program manager with the Hahn’s Peak Ranger District in Steamboat Springs, said his office has received requests from commercial bike operators in recent years who want to either drop off customers at trailheads or guide tours. The holdup, Foster said, is that his agency still is working on a capacity analysis study to be completed for the local forest. The study, he said, will help forest officials determine the volume of commercial operations that can take place and balance that with the use by the general public. Foster said the study has been in the works for 10 years, and he inherited it when he took over as recreation program manager.

“When I first took this job, I wanted to get that going and wrapped up,” Foster said.

That’s been a challenge, he said, because of the resources that have been necessary to deal with the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

“We’ve been dealing with beetle stuff,” Foster said.

Bike tour operators are not the only ones hoping for the completion of the study, which Foster thought would be done in the next two years. Current permit holders in the area forest include companies that offer snowmobile tours, backcountry skiing on Buffalo Pass and hunting guides. Other companies want to offer those services as well, Foster said, but the study needs to be completed before new permits are issued. Foster said the permitting process is partly for quality control.

“We expect our permitees to provide a good experience, and they do,” Foster said.

The Forest Service also wants to ensure that public lands are not being overused by commercial operators.

Controversy erupted in Vail last week after the Forest Service told two all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile companies to stop their operations, which involved delivering the vehicles to the Vail Pass summit parking area and renting them to people who went on their own unguided adventures.

"Not all proposed commercial activities are appropriate for the location proposed, and some are not appropriate on national Forest Service lands at all," White River National Forest ranger Jan Cutts told The Denver Post.

The White River National Forest also is in the process of doing capacity studies to determine what commercial uses are appropriate.

The Denver Post reported the “rentals of motorized and non-motorized vehicles have exploded in recent years, with mountain-bike companies supplying 2,000 or more visitors on peak days atop Vail Pass.”

Foster said the Routt National Forest is in a different situation and does not see the high visitor numbers of the Vail area, where companies use billboards to advertise ATV and snowmobile rentals for the forest.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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