SUMMIT COUNTY - Local snowmobiling enthusiasts are eyeing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal with serious concern. The proposal to designate as wilderness thousands of acres of White River National Forest land would keep snowmobilers out of some of their favorite spots in Summit County, according to Rich Holcroft, president of High Country Snowmobile Club.
Motorized recreation is prohibited in federally designated wilderness areas.
"We're environmentalists, we're hikers, we hunt and fish and do all kinds of other stuff," Holcroft said. "It just happens that in the winter, we like to snowmobile, and we like to have a place to do it."
Holcroft's organization represents snowmobile interests in Summit County. The club, originally formed in 1977, has about 35 dues-paying members today. Holcroft resurrected the once-defunct group about three years ago in response to the U.S. Forest Service's efforts to create the White River National Forest Travel Management Plan. Through the plan, Forest Service officials hope to determine "ways to accommodate and balance the transportation needs of the public and provide adequate access for forest and resource management, while still allowing for protection of natural resources."
In other words, the travel management plan aims to designate appropriate uses - like snowmobiling, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, ATV use, four-wheeling and dirt-biking - to specific routes and zones in a way that would best protect the forest ecosystem and minimize conflict among user groups. The development of the plan has been in the works for more than 10 years, and the draft plan incorporates years' worth of public comment, including that of the High Country Snowmobile Club. The Forest Service could issue the final plan as early as May.
Holcroft is afraid much of that effort and input will go out the window if the Hidden Gems proposal becomes law, as proposed earlier this spring by conservation groups. And more specifically, he fears snowmobilers have the most to lose.
Summer motorized uses - by Jeeps, dirt-bikes and ATV's - as outlined in the travel management plan, would be largely unaffected by Hidden Gems. Those uses would be limited to specific trails and roads, none of which dip into the proposed boundaries of expanded wilderness.
Chuck Ginsburg, who heads Summit County Off-Road Riders (SCORR), said the wilderness proposal doesn't encroach on trails his group enjoys. Ginsburg's objections are more philosophical. Furthermore, he feels the Forest Service is underfunded and that enforcement of wilderness designation would be an additional strain on already limited resources.
Snowmobiling is a different beast than off-highway-vehicle (OHV) use, though. The real fun on a snowmobile, Holcroft says, comes not from designated trails, but from the freedom of wide-open terrain. And there are some spots where the Hidden Gems proposal overlaps with areas considered OK for such snowmobile play in the draft Travel Management Plan. In other spots, Hidden Gems and the travel plan are in agreement about curtailing or prohibiting snowmobile use.
"It's most important to have access to above-treeline areas, where you can ride on the snow and just go," he said.
Holcroft is most concerned about the Hidden Gems parcels dubbed Elliot Ridge, Porcupine Gulch, Hoosier Ridge and Tenmile. In these areas, snowmobilers can ride in some remote spots without risking conflict with backcountry skiers or snowshoers, because they're too far from trailheads. And they can avoid the crowds (and fees) of Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area and Tiger Road.
The Elliot Ridge parcel would extend the northern boundary of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, accessible by Spring Creek Road.
"This area is used by a ton of Summit County snowmobilers. There are a lot of roads leading to above-treeline playing," Holcroft said.
Hidden Gems proponents say the Eagles Nest boundary needs to be adjusted, because there are no obvious physical features on the land that signal entry into wilderness. The proposed extension would provide a more clear delineation.
Holcroft said that problem should be solved with better signage, not an act of Congress.
Porcupine Gulch features some snowmobilers' favorite bowls, and both Hoosier Ridge and Tenmile (both at the southern tip of Summit County) are home to areas long popular with residents in and around the town of Blue River.
"I can ride from my house and be up there in about 15 minutes. It's beautiful, above-treeline riding, and it gets a lot of use," said Holcroft, who lives in Blue River.
Holcroft asserts that new prohibitions to snowmobile use would severely limit recreation choices and put too much pressure on remaining open areas. Just as skiers and boarders decide which ski area to visit based on conditions and snow totals, so do snowmobilers select their recreation spots.
"If you only have two areas, and snow is bad in both of them, where do you go? You need to have some flexibility and choices," he said.
In all, Holcroft's group prefers the Travel Management Plan to Wilderness designation as a land-use tool. He says it has flexibility, in that it can evolve over time as technology, needs and uses change. Wilderness, on the other hand, will remain wilderness in perpetuity, in all likelihood.
"Who's to say in 10 or 15 years what we're going to be riding on? People could be on hover-boards for all I know," he said.
However, it is that very lack of flexibility in wilderness that makes it meaningful and important, conservationists argue. Wilderness designation guards against unforeseen pressures on land, water and wildlife that may materialize far into the future. Local plans, such as a travel plan, change every decade or two.
The Hidden Gems campaign contends, "wilderness designation is the best way to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities to experience these irreplaceable natural treasures as we do today."
Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.