Summit County, Forest Service deciding future of Vail Pass bike shuttle permits | SummitDaily.com

Summit County, Forest Service deciding future of Vail Pass bike shuttle permits

An employee at Rebel Sports unloads a bike for a clients at the top of Vail Pass as part of the program regulated by the White River National Forest through a special-use permit. The Forest Service now hopes to extend those permits to 10-year renewals rather than annual review, and the county has questions about the commercial enterprise along its recpath system.

A U.S. Forest Service proposal to increase the number of user days for commercial bicycle shuttle services up to Vail Pass has set off a debate within the county over whether long-term permits should even be allowed.

During the first week of January, the White River National Forest announced the chance to comment on its intended action of raising the number of participants through 12 permitted businesses, from the current 19,525 to as many as 23,000 each summer. That community feedback is being accepted until Feb. 6 before expectations of the adapted program take effect this May.

On top of expanding capacity to provide more recreation opportunities to the public — what the local White River ranger district estimates as a total of an extra four days of clients for each service provider — the Forest Service seeks to shift its special-use permits from temporary annual renewals to 10-year licenses to operate the bike transportation service. That follows a federal directive to convert these types of permits to the longer term following prior years of successful activity, increasing internal efficiencies due to the agency's staffing reductions. It also benefits these service operators, two-thirds of which are based in Summit County, by lending some assurance of business stability.

"It gives businesses confidence that they can operate year-to-year and plan for staffing, advertising and planning their needs for transportation and van upkeep," said Bill Jackson, ranger for the Dillon District of the White River National Forest. "Plus, the point is not to issue one-year permits for the same activity, especially with one person in the office processing all of these recreation special-use permits on the district. It doesn't make good economic sense."

For comparison, Jackson noted, ski areas possess 40-year permits on area forestlands. The Forest Service also conducted both resource capacity and needs analyses in 2015 for the 25-mile stretch of the county's recpath, which runs from Vail Pass through the Tenmile Canyon, past Copper Mountain to the town of Frisco. The capacity data showed the number of users per day is well below the determined maximum for commercial use on the recpath, while in that needs assessment, 81 percent of respondents reported that they did not feel a sense of congestion.

Safety First

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These shuttle services are entering their fourth year under Forest Service permits. The activity had been happening for several years before that time, and the licenses were initiated to establish regulations and oversight for this commercial use on Forest Service property at its Vail Pass parking lot, used for drop-offs.

But, as part of the ongoing Iron Springs road realignment on State Highway 9, the county agreed to take on maintenance of the Vail Pass portion of the recpath from the Colorado Department of Transportation as a subcontractor through an easement. As a result, the county believes it has a more vested stake and could therefore be held financially liable if there were a cycling accident, and the chance of that becomes heightened with more use.

"This increase essentially amounts to roughly 18 percent," Jesse Billingham, a resource specialist for Summit County Open Space & Trails, said at a commissioners' meeting last week. "The concern there is that the public has expressed a lot of concerns regarding safety, regarding crowding on these sections."

The Forest Service already requires that permitted businesses attend safety briefings, keep consistent records of accidents and also ensure clients who rent bikes and use the shuttle wear helmets while descending. Additionally, the federal agency says these outfitters have done a satisfactory job of coordinating drop-off times so they don't overlap and create other issues. It also contends there's no correlation or discernable pattern between user days and a rise in participant collisions, and the open space department acknowledges the county ambulance data for the recpath suggests the same.

"It's not like it's carnage out there by any means," county open space director Brian Lorch said during the meeting. "We don't have safety numbers to say that people are dying out there, which they aren't."

Pedaling Forward

Complicating matters further is the recpath, which has been paid for and managed through county open space and trails funds, falls under that department's jurisdiction. Technically this requires pre-approval for its use as an essential component for any commercial purpose. By some interpretations, these shuttle services should then have a permit from the county as well as the Forest Service to operate in the first place, and the county wishes also to explore the idea of receiving a portion of the fees to help defray some of its maintenance costs.

"We know of other counties that don't allow any commercial activities on their open space parcels or recreation systems," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson. "We've long held that there is room for that activity, but we want to manage it. There's got to be some sort of carrying capacity limit. There just simply has to be."

The commissioners are likely to submit a letter through the Forest Service's comment process about a potential fee-sharing agreement, as well as inquiring about the philosophy behind offering new user days during low periods rather than existing peak periods and times. The White River National Forest will consider all feedback ahead of the February deadline, and adjust accordingly, but has no intentions of ending its Vail Pass shuttle service permit program.

"This is an activity permitted by the Forest Service since 2013," said Jackson. "That's not changing. The only difference is the term of the permit to 10 years, which makes us consistent with Forest Service policy. And we're trying to be forward thinking, and … factor in a little bit of a growth opportunity for these outfitters."

 To provide comments to the Forest Service by Feb. 6:

Visit the project page at: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=50697

Or email Ken Waugh at the Dillon Ranger District, at: kwaugh@fs.fed.us