After a slow start, city to continue commercial use on Emerald Mountain

Avalanche clinics can now be classified as special events, allowed larger groups

In a 6-1 vote on Nov. 9, the Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation Commission decided to stand pat on its policy for organized recreational use on the Emerald Mountain Trail Network.

This past summer was the first year the city issued permits allowing commercial outfitters to offer lessons, clinics and tours on Emerald Mountain — a move that some in the community oppose.

“I think we’re loving Emerald to death,” said Gretchen Shaler, who helped make the mountain’s trails. She urged the commission not to raise the maximum group size for lessons, clinics and tours from five to 10 per day saying groups like the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club is an example of how larger groups can create chaos on the mountain.

“All the trails are hammered and they need love,” Shaler said. “But you put that many people going that fast downhill, and they’re gonna brake and they’re going to create erosion.”

The Parks and Recreation Department entertained the idea of raising the daily maximum number of people an outfitter can take up Emerald from five to 10, and sought direction from the commission on whether to change the policy.

Several arguments were made for raising the daily limit: families larger than four wouldn’t have to split into different days, some operations such as avalanche clinics aren’t viable with very small groups and programs such as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club are allowed to take groups of 10 already.

According to the city’s data, the wear and tear from lessons, clinics and tours this summer was minimal, as only 10 people took part in commercial mountain bike operations on Emerald.

Two permits were awarded through the city’s request for qualifications process. Steamboat Powdercats was awarded one of those permits, but never did any tours, while Ride Workshop took 10 mountain bike riders up the mountain.

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“It was split into a lot of small groups of one to three riders total,” the owner of Ride Workshop, Corey Piscopo, said. He added that he would be okay if the maximum group size remained at five, as he didn’t envision doing groups much bigger than that anyway.

Piscopo’s tours were typically done in the early morning on weekdays when there weren’t very many other people on the trails, he said, and that among the few people who enlisted his services, they were mostly beginners with a few intermediate riders who weren’t familiar with trail etiquette and were seeking instruction.

“Not a ton of interest in ripping down NPR,” Piscopo said.

But avalanche awareness clinics are a bit of an outlier. The Steamboat Powdercats expressed interest in offering avalanche clinics but felt the maximum group size wouldn’t be viable, and the commission agreed.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a clinic that’s been less than 15 people,” Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Calder Young said.

So, it was determined by the city’s staff that avalanche clinics can be categorized as special events, which have a different permitting process but can accommodate much larger groups.

Programs such as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s bike programs are defined as long-term activities typically with the same participants and allow for a maximum group size of 10 including the instructor.

The SSWSC used the trails on Emerald Mountain more than any other group with 2,171 users through Sept. 26, according to the city’s data.   

The commission voiced concern that allowing programs to have larger groups creates a double standard and entertained both approaches for bringing the two categories into alignment — raising the maximum daily limit for lessons, clinics and tours, and lowering the limit for programs.

“You’re comparing apples to oranges,” said Ben Berend of the Parks and Recreation Commission. “It’s commercial use versus the youth of our community, you know. I just I see it differently.”

Ultimately, the commission decided to stick with the current policy with the allowance of avalanche clinics and similar operations to apply under the special events category.

“This commercial use stuff is just starting,” said said commission member Josh Welch. “So just in the interest of time, I’m going to go ahead and move that we keep the limits the same for right now and continue to assess that moving forward.”

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