Room for everyone
District ranger optimistic her organization can solve conflict between skiers, snowmobilers
Steamboat Springs — David Brown hit the kill switch on his Ski Doo 650 as a puzzled expression came over his face. “What conflict?” Brown asked, when quizzed for his take on the increasing friction among snowmobilers and cross country skiers in the area.
“We just came back from being out there for a couple of hours and we only saw a few people,” Brown said.
The conflict can be traced to the rapid growth of winter recreation in the Steamboat Springs area, and most particularly the kinds of recreation pursued in the National Forest outside the boundaries of the sprawling Steamboat Ski Area.
Modern snowmobiles can penetrate deeper into the region’s famous powder stashes than ever before. But a growing legion of backcountry skiers and snowshoers wants to protect a piece of the backcountry where they can enjoy the relative peace and solitude of the winter landscape uninterrupted by the whine of snowmobiles.
Brown and his family are emblematic of the surge in popularity snowmobiling has experienced on the national forest surrounding Steamboat. The family of four (they have a son and daughter) set their alarm clocks for 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning and were out of the house by 5:15 a.m. so they could arrive at the snowmobile parking lot on Rabbit Ears Pass before 8 a.m.
Brown is a construction worker from Northglenn who installs metal decking on high-rise buildings. He just took up snowmobiling this winter with the encouragement of friends. The Browns try to visit Rabbit Ears every other weekend.
“It’s nice when you cut through the snow and you’re just out there by yourself,” Brown said.
The Browns may be blissfully unaware of conflicts among people who pursue winter recreation on the Bears Ears/Hahn’s Peak Ranger District of the Routt National Forest, but District Ranger Kim Vogel knows about the problems firsthand.
She and her husband once returned from a day of snowmobiling on Rabbit Ears to find an unpleasant note on their windshield. What they didn’t realize until they drove off was that someone had disconnected their snowmobile trailer, leaving it attached to the vehicle only by its chain.
“It could have resulted in a serious accident,” Vogel said.
Vogel’s office has received incident reports of slashed tires and vehicles being keyed.
“I can’t say there’s a lot of that going on, but there are people on the extreme ends of those sports,” Vogel said.
Despite her own experience, Vogel is enough of an optimist to predict solving the current conflict has the potential to be “fun.”
Her agency has set itself the task of starting fresh with planning for diverse forms of winter recreation on the National Forest. By October 2004, Vogel hopes to have produced a “Draft Winter Recreation Travel Plan” that will allow her office to make funding requests for its implementation.
“It’s high time we took a look and polled people and asked, ‘What do you want?'” Vogel said.
Already, the Forest Service has set aside areas of “suggested use” where snowmobilers are asked to stay away. The maps showing these areas are posted prominently on a large sandwich board outside the ranger district office on U.S. Highway 40.
The Forest Service has to take some of the blame for the current state of affairs in the forest surrounding Steamboat, Vogel said.
“What we’ve figured out is that we haven’t provided a good, well-planned recreation experience,” Vogel said. “We’ve plowed parking lots on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Pass and worked with people in North Routt. What we haven’t done is take a good, comprehensive look at the available terrain” and plan for the various forms of recreation.
Backcountry skier Leslie Lovejoy believes national forest trailheads are one place to begin unraveling the knot that has skiers and snowmobilers in conflict. Lovejoy is a member of “Friends of the Routt Backcountry,” an organization affiliated with the larger Backcountry Skiers Alliance based in Eldorado Springs. They advocate for creating nonmotorized areas within the national forest to segregate the two kinds of recreation.
Lovejoy observes much of the congestion occurs close to the trailheads shared by the various users. Instead, she suggests, separate trailheads could serve to separate snowmobilers from skiers and snowshoers, resolving conflict.
Perhaps nowhere is the pressure of different forms of recreation more apparent than on Buffalo Pass, just a few miles from downtown Steamboat. From a modest parking lot off a narrow county road, both snowmobilers and backcountry skiers are staging day trips into the high country. A commercial snowcat operation that guides Alpine skiers into a powder field on the Continental Divide has been operating from there for more than two decades. And increasingly, hybrid recreationists — skiers and snowboarders who use snowmobiles to access untracked powder — are being added to the mix, Vogel said.
Twenty-five years ago, very little of this winter recreation was taking place on Buffalo Pass because the snow was too deep for anybody — skiers or snowmobilers — to access it. That began to change when the Forest Service issued a permit for the original snowcat skiing operation on the pass.
The snowcats packed out paths that essentially created roads into the backcountry and gradually, members of the public began to figure out they were entitled to use those roads for the pursuit of their own recreation.
This year, the Forest Service allowed the commercial operator to establish a new road for more convenient access to the skiing on Soda Mountain. Vogel believes already that decision has resulted in an increase in the numbers of hybrid users on Buffalo Pass.
“There’s a lot of young folks who have figured out that’s a ski area that has been created up there,” Vogel said.
The increased use on Buffalo Pass has also resulted in illegal motorized incursions into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area this winter. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motorized vehicles within the boundary of a wilderness.
Wilderness Ranger Jon Halverson said seven men have been fined this winter for taking their snowmobiles into the Zirkel Wilderness in the Buffalo Pass area. Scott Greaves and Matthew Pawlak of Steamboat, James Gonzales of Fort Collins, Dave McCarthy of Laramie, Wyo., and Mark Belfast and Erik Rappolt of Longmont all received tickets and $75 fines, Halverson said. Another Steamboat man, John Waddick, was fined $210 by a U.S. magistrate in Grand Junction after he was observed driving his snowmobile right past a sign posting the roadless area.
“There’s a two-mile stretch up there that is our biggest nightmare,” Halverson said. “We have probably 40 signs in that stretch.”
Halverson is certain some of the offenders believed their snow machines couldn’t harm the wilderness under a heavy blanket of snow. He agrees the plants and soils beneath the snow are unharmed by the passage of a snowmobile. However, there are intangible aspects of wilderness that require protection, he said.
“Wilderness is set aside as a place to be free of the sights and sounds of the modern world, a place for primitive adventure and solitude,” Halverson said. “Motorized vehicles and equipment were never intended to be a part of that picture and are prohibited in wilderness.”
Vogel said in many ways, designing a new winter recreation plan for her ranger district will be more complicated and more challenging than the environmental policy decisions her office makes.
“This is primarily a social issue,” Vogel said. “Our environmental analyses are best when they involve environmental issues with associated social issues.”
In the case of an environmental issue, Vogel said it’s relatively straightforward to rely on science and weigh the impacts of different courses of action on plant and animal communities.
In the case of winter recreation, it comes down to pleasing the public.
No matter what the new draft Winter Recreation Travel Plan concludes, people will be asked to let go of the habits they’ve grown fond of in prior decades in order to become part of a solution that will work in the future, Vogel said.
Dave Brown decided to get involved in snowmobiling cautiously. He has two brand new sleds, but his rig was among the most modest in the parking lot on Rabbit Ears last weekend.
“Just these two outfits my wife and I are wearing cost us $1,000,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to spend too much until I found out if I liked it.”
Brown is hooked on the sport and hopes to invest in a nice covered trailer, maybe by next winter.
Vogel knows more Front Range residents like Brown, some of them skiers, some of them snowmobilers, will discover the charms of the mountain passes surrounding Steamboat next year. Her challenge, she said, is to provide for all different forms of recreation.
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