With emotions running high, solutions hard to find in the backcountry
Steamboat Springs — Giving up the powder is painful. Diehard backcountry users have a favorite stash somewhere that they protect like rare treasure. The only thing worse than imagining that spot overrun and tracked out by strangers is imagining that spot taken away entirely.
But it’s going to happen. In the battle over the backcountry, everyone loses something.
As winter tourism
in Routt County increases, the number of people, most recognizably snowmobilers, diving into the backcountry grows. With that, more special places will be discovered and more conflicts can arise.
“Everybody has to give and take a little bit,” backcountry enthusiast Tom Scilacci said. “People want it the way it was before and it’s not going to be that way again. For myself, I can either say, ‘Aw, there’s a machine, that sucks,’ or I can wave and say hi. I’m just trying to accept that this is the way things are going to be. It’s a national forest, and people have the right to recreate in whichever way they see fit.”
Scilacci, a member of Routt County Search and Rescue, is an avid backcountry skier first and foremost, but he also owns a snowmobile for towing skiers. He is one of a number of locals who both ski and snowmobile, and can see both sides of the contentious issue.
Another such user, Charlie Cholet, does a lot of hybrid skiing. He considers himself more of a sledder and his wife more of a skier. What he does on a given day “really depends on who calls me.”
“I don’t feel constrained at all, myself as a skier or a snowmobiler, in the current situation. I’ve never had a run-in with another user, but I try to stay in the correct areas and be courteous,” he said. “I do get a little upset, though, when people go into the backcountry and discuss their ‘right’ not to hear my sled. It’s my ‘right,’ as a snowmobiler, to enjoy public lands, too.”
It’s so unfair
Jim Linville, a board member of the nonmotorized advocacy group Friends of the Routt Backcountry, said the growing pains brought on by the area’s popularity as a winter recreation destination make every group feel its territory is threatened.
“The use has increased overwhelmingly in the last five to eight years, so everybody who is used to being out there is going to think it’s crowded, and that’s why people have dug their heels in,” he said. “The overall feeling on both sides is that they are taking things away, but really, neither side can say it’s just them.”
Linville and snowmobiler Marc Satre, a board member of the Routt Powder Riders snowmobile club, both served on the Routt Winter Task Force, a mixed group of users facilitated by the U.S. Forest Service to resolve backcountry user conflicts. Through collaborative efforts of the task force and Forest Service, suggested use areas on Rabbit Ears Pass have been reinforced and new non-motorized suggested use areas have been mapped out on Buffalo Pass. However, the task force seemed to reach an impasse in late 2002, leading the Forest Service to step in and decide on the most recent set of changes: requiring snowmobiles to stay on groomed trails in designated areas on Buffalo Pass, and designating nearly 3,000 acres next to the Steamboat Ski Area for non-motorized use only.
The Forest Service has not called the task force back together since making those decisions, and task force members said it’s likely because the Forest Service feels bickering has overwhelmed productivity. Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel was unavailable for comment.
“We don’t have any area that we’re absolutely fighting for, but if you talk to (skiers), there’s no specific area that they are fighting for; they just want to block snowmobiles out,” Satre said.
Because skiers and snowshoers are allowed in motorized suggested use areas, but the growing expanse of nonmotorized areas exclude snowmobiles, Satre and fellow snowmobilers feel the give and take only goes one direction.
Linville argues that the losses nonmotorized users have experienced may not be marked on a map, but they are just as tangible.
“I can count the places I used to ski that have been overrun with snowmobilers,” he said. “Snowmobilers say skiers never give up anything, but when you work two or three hours to get to a spot you have used for years and you expect it to be untouched and there are snowmobile tracks all over it, it is incredibly disappointing.”
An equitable solution
A survey conducted by the Winter Task Force indicates that the majority of users enjoy their backcountry experience, Satre said, which he takes as an indication that the current boundaries are suitable and don’t need to be changed further.
But because change seems inevitable to all involved, making changes that all sides perceive as fair is critical to quelling hostilities and reducing the number of people who don’t play by the rules.
“We need to find a way to do things that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” said Dave Wilkinson, a hybrid skier, former Powder Cats guide and snowmobiler. “We need to tie future changes to a reasonable understanding of why they are necessary — not because a few vocal people on either side want them, but because a design study shows it mandates it.”
“We need to look at the pure numbers and lean it that way,” Cholet said. “Unfortunately, we have a vocal minority of skiers, but that minority is well-placed. I’m not saying they don’t have valid concerns, but the fact that we’ve been doing it one way for years is not a valid reason to close off an area to motorized use. It’s a democracy — if the numbers say close it off, let’s do that, but do the numbers really say that?”
The answer to that question is far more difficult than simply finding the ratio of motorized to non-motorized users and dividing the backcountry proportionally; issues of quality, history, and most importantly, access come into play.
“The type of terrain is just as important as the acreage. I don’t think it’s right to do it by proportion,” Linville said. “As backcountry skiers, we feel part of the solution is protection of terrain near the trailheads. When people ask, why don’t skiers just go use the wilderness, the answer is because we can’t get there unless we use snowmobiles.”
Separate, segregated parking lots on Rabbit Ears Pass helped ease some tension in the most heavily used portion of the backcountry. Similar efforts are under way in North Routt, with attempts to purchase land to provide snowmobile-friendly access between the large parking lot at Steamboat Lake State Park and the national forest. Where separation is impossible, on Buffalo Pass, the Forest Service has attempted to create use areas that divide skiers, hybrids and snowmobilers as soon as possible after the trailhead bottleneck.
Snowmobilers claim they don’t mind giving up land around the trailheads — as long as one concession doesn’t lead to more and more.
Trend or perception?
For Cholet, a skier and snowmobiler, the concern isn’t Soda Mountain or the Toutes specifically, but the trend in land management.
“I don’t mind if the areas closest to the roads are designated for skiers, because when I’m snowmobiling I can range far away from those,” he said. “Really, it’s not so much the actual areas in question, but the trend. I have seen so many areas closed, and once they are closed they are gone forever.”
Snowmobilers see the boundary adjustments that have taken place over the last few years as cutting solely into their terrain — no motorized areas have been expanded. Coupled with that are growing national trends toward greater restriction of motorized access to public lands, in summer and winter, for environmental reasons.
The perception that snowmobilers are fighting a losing battle has lead local ones to view each small boundary change, real or proposed, as a symptom of something much greater — and possibly given others an excuse to act irresponsibly.
“By them threatening more and more closures, they are pushing some people over the edge,” Cholet said. Some frustrated snowmobilers, feeling land will inevitably be taken away, are paying less attention to suggested use areas. However, what people may be interpreting as a trend is actually the product of the Winter Task Force’s planning, Linville said.
“When we started the task force, the goal was to work on conflict areas: the first year, Rabbit Ears Pass, the second year, Buffalo Pass, the third year, we hadn’t set a goal, but I assumed it would be South Routt or North Routt,” he said. “That could be translated into one thing after another, after another.”
Taking a break — perhaps a long one — before making more changes to the current suggested-use areas may help reduce some of the tensions on both sides, Cholet said.
“Let’s take a breather here, both sides have made concessions, and let’s just see how what we have works. We can make sweeping changes, but no matter what you do, people will still be upset,” he said. “Rather than continuing to make changes, let’s make a commitment to stick with the status quo for a few years and use the time to get numbers on paper: what are the numbers in these groups, what are the impacts to the environment, socially and financially.”
Planning for the future
Motorized and nonmotorized users agree that the current suggested use areas on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo pass are sometimes disregarded by snowmobilers, but they disagree on the extent to which that happens.
“In the task force, skiers said they were getting a 90 percent compliance rate, but that isn’t good enough; one set of snowmobile tracks in their country is one too many,” Satre said. “We can solve this problem through peer pressure. We are still trying, we meet with (outside snowmobile clubs) and the No. 1 thing we tell them is do not cross those boundaries. But still, you won’t get everyone to get along and we need to acknowledge that no matter what, we’ll only get 90 or 98 percent compliance.”
Skiers, however, feel the compliance rate would probably go up if the suggested-use boundaries were converted to official closures that snowmobilers would face legal sanctions for violating.
If closures are implemented in the future, funding their enforcement could be problematic. The local Forest Service office’s budget is lower this year than it was in the early 1990s.
Instituting a user fee, like the one in place on Vail Pass that funds enforcement, trail grooming and parking management there, is one possibility. Looking to the future, the Forest Service plans to begin the scoping process for a draft Winter Recreation Travel Plan for the Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District, although it has not yet determined whether that plan would focus on the entire 1.1 million acre district or just the most heavily used places.
Many feel strongly that, given the spread in use from Rabbit Ears to Buffalo Pass, and now to North Routt, a plan encompassing the entire area would do the best job of eliminating future conflicts.
“We would have liked (the Forest Service) to say you have one year to draw the boundaries or we’ll draw them for you,” Linville said. “It would be nice to set the boundaries and be done with it so that everyone can get used to where they are. … I think the process has the best chance of working now if it is district-wide, but I’m apprehensive about the tremendous digging in of heels.”
Snowmobilers agree that setting boundaries in areas such as North and West Routt will be much easier to do now, before users are set in their habits.
“We drew the lines up on Rabbit Ears Pass way prematurely — no one needed them back in 1981– but they were the right lines and they should be holding in 20 years. Imagine the conflicts we’d be having if we were only now trying to put those boundaries in,” Satre said. “In North Routt, they’re having problems around Hahn’s Peak, but Hahn’s Peak up to Sand Mountain, that’s rugged terrain that’s hardly used. Now is the time to draw those lines.”
North Routt residents agree. There, the skier-snowmobiler conflict is already dividing friends and neighbors, Columbine Cabins owner Lyman Fancher said.
A group of residents, including the mixed-user Steamboat Lake Snow Club, is trying to put together a forum in which a professional recreation planner would moderate, take public input, and help the residents develop a recreation plan for the North Routt area.
“There needs to be a public forum where the impacts are discussed and mitigation is discussed,” Fancher said. “Some kind of adult, mature plan needs to be formulated, and unfortunately, the Forest Service is notorious for taking forever. We feel that if we can fight and compromise among ourselves, and then take a plan we agree on to the Forest Service, they’ll be more likely to go along.”
The downside of those future plans is that they will, inevitably, take treasured territory from both sides. And even with boundaries, the number of backcountry users, and the chances of running into other people in the middle of nowhere, will continue to increase.
Handling that comes down to an individual’s perspective.
“They did just close off an area near the ski area that was a very popular place,” Cholet said. “I’m going to miss that area for snowmobiling, but it has forced me to find new places to play.”
“I’m not concerned with snowmobiles going in more areas. Part of being a backcountry skier is exploring somewhere you’ve never been, so what’s the point of getting all huffy? People just need to be the first to smile and wave; if you get really sweet turns and all you’re caught up in is the fact you saw a snowmobile, you’re out there for the wrong reasons,” Scilacci said. “And the growth ain’t gonna stop, so if you really have an issue with it, move to Montana.”
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