U.S. Forest Service proposes fee increase for Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area | SummitDaily.com

U.S. Forest Service proposes fee increase for Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area

Alli Langley
alangley@summitdaily.com

For Chris Vogelsang, the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area is an oasis.

The 45-year-old loves snowmobiling there 10 to 12 times a season because the high alpine terrain always receives plenty of snow. The area provides easy access to 55,000 acres of backcountry that he can quickly explore by himself.

Plus, he said, the recreation area has seen "a lot of success between the motorized and nonmotorized communities, which isn't always the case around the state or around the country really."

Besides snowmobile riders, people who backcountry ski and snowshoe enjoy the area and use it to access six huts where they can stay overnight, and about a dozen permitted businesses provide guiding and equipment rental services there.

The Forest Service manages about 120 miles of trails designated for motorized or nonmotorized use. Fifty miles are groomed, open and often used by all kinds of recreationists.

Vogelsang, a Golden resident, said the area is perfect for beginners to many snowsports because the Forest Service provides detailed maps and information and enforces the area's rules.

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The White River National Forest announced Friday, Jan. 2, a proposal to increase user fees at the recreation area.

If approved, the proposal would raise the price of a day pass from $6 to $9 per person and a season pass from $40 to $100.

The Forest Service will accept public comments on the proposal through the winter, said Ken Waugh, recreation officer with the Dillon Ranger District.

RELYING ON GOODWILL

About 25 years ago, the recreation area wasn't such a peaceful haven.

The area was home to frequent, sometimes violent conflicts, problems with plowing and parking, and unacceptable resource damage, according to the Forest Service.

In the early 1990s, the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area Task Force formed to represent the different users, and the Forest Service started charging fees.

The recreation area now draws about 35,000 visitors a year, 11,000 of which are attracted by the nearby backcountry huts.

The current fees, which haven't been raised since 2005, help pay for the map brochure and the cost of staffing the area.

Forest Service employees staff the pass sales and information booth from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends, and every day during the winter they patrol the area, checking for passes and snowmobile registration, providing information, recording use data, enforcing rules and helping with emergencies.

User fees also fund avalanche safety training and gear for the staff and volunteer patrollers, who now provide much of their own equipment.

Besides staffing, which has been reduced in recent years, the main costs of managing the recreation area are grooming and plowing.

CDOT helps plow the parking area, but over the years, CDOT plowers have contributed less frequently and reliably as the department has focused its priorities on clearing Interstate 70.

"Right now what they do is rely on the goodwill of CDOT," said Vogelsang, vice president of the task force. "When it's snowing a lot is when the lot needs to be plowed the most and is when CDOT is very, very busy."

HOW FEES WOULD BE SPENT

Last season, the Forest Service stopped allowing a couple of businesses to drop off clients with rented snowmobiles. Waugh said the Forest Service realized those businesses needed permits and didn't grant them because of concerns about overuse and lynx habitat.

The Forest Service collected about $150,000 in fees last winter and expects the revenue to drop this winter without fees from the businesses no longer allowed to operate.

Officials expect to collect $132,000 this year — $18,000 from 450 season pass sales and $114,000 from 19,000 day pass sales. They've calculated that annual expenses for the area amount to $166,500.

With the fee increase, the Forest Service estimates season pass sales will drop to 300 a year and day passes would increase to about 20,000 a year, generating $210,000 total in fees.

The increased funds would pay for operating expenses plus an extra seasonal employee, patroller safety training and gear, snowmobile maintenance, grooming, plowing and signage.

The task force started talking about the fee increase about three years ago, said Steve Bonowski, the group's president.

The 65-year-old Lakewood resident likes to snowshoe in the area and represents one of four nonmotorized users on the eight-member task force.

He said the cost of diesel fuel for the groomer hasn't been going down like gasoline recently, and the task force hopes to obtain grants and more funds to help replace its aging groomer. He said he expects the new fee increase to sustain the area for a long time.

"Even with the season pass going from 40 to 100 (dollars), it's a real bargain," he said, especially when compared with season pass costs at nearby Nordic centers.

Bonowski said the task force will have a public meeting at the Dillon Ranger District office in Silverthorne on Jan. 28, at 9 a.m.

More details about the proposal, including a breakdown of how fees are currently spent and how they would be spent after the increase, is available through the White River National Forest website at fs.usda.gov/whiteriver. Navigate to Recreation/Winter Sports/Snowmobiling/Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.

To comment on the proposal, email wrnf_scoping_comments@fs.fed.us.