Winter trail conflicts bubble up again |

Winter trail conflicts bubble up again

summit daily news

SUMMIT COUNTY ” No sooner is the ground covered with snow than the annual and seemingly endless wrangling over motorized and non-motorized access to local trails begins.

This winter, the U.S. Forest Service has already logged reports of unauthorized snowmobile use in closed areas, including the Mohawk Lake Trail, the Peaks Trail, the Burro Trail and even in the vicinity of the Old Dillon Reservoir Trail, just off Dillon Dam Road.

Longtime local snowmobile enthusiast Joe Casselberry traces the history of the user conflicts back more than 20 years, to 1984, when the White River National Forest issued its first management plan. The plan itself was not the problem. Rather, it was the lag time between release of the plan and its subsequent implementation. According to Casselberry, it took six years before the federal agency produced the documentation ” maps and a travel management plan ” needed to clarify the rules.

A similar situation exists today. More than four years after the White River forest plan was revised (in 2002), users are still waiting for the agency to finalize the travel management plan that lays out trail-by-trail use.

“From a snowmobiler’s perspective, which law do you follow?” Casselberry asked. “I do my best to follow the laws, but I know I break some. They’re conflicting.” Casselberry said it’s important for snowmobiles to check in with the Forest Service visitor center on Blue River Parkway (Highway 9) in Silverthorne to get the latest information.

Turnover in Forest Service personnel may have also resulted in some confusion, Casselberry continued, explaining that there is a lack of continuity in documentation for agreements and understandings that were reached more than three years ago, he said.

“Each year, because we’re in turmoil, we can’t rely on historical use,” he said.

Another example of the confusion over local snowmobile use relates to Dillon Reservoir, he explained. Rules posted on Denver Water’s website designate the ice as closed, yet old signs in some spots around the reservoir suggest the surface is open to motorized use, he said.

Good terrain abounds

But local Forest Service rangers say that, even without the travel plan, both snowmobilers and non-motorized users should be able to find suitable areas. The Dillon Ranger District is trying to provide the best information possible to guide snowmobilers to the best available areas.

“The White River National Forest cannot provide all opportunities for all individuals in all areas,” said Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton. “While an individual may not always be able to snowmobile closest to where they live, there’s still a great amount of snow available for folks to use in designated places,” Newton said.

In and around Summit County, some areas that are open to snowmobile use include: Straight Creek, Miners Creek to just below Ten Mile Peak, Spruce Creek/Crystal Creek, Pennsylvania Creek, Indiana Creek, Wilder Gulch, north of Mahan Lake, Vail Pass, and the area from the south fork of the Swan River northeast to Peru Creek.

Casselberry agreed with Newton’s assessment, highlighting Vail Pass as the premier snowmobile playground in the area. The area is intensively managed by the Forest Service and volunteers from the Vail Pass Task Force. Good maps are available for the area and most routes are clearly signed.

“It’s the safest, the nicest and has the most parking,” he said.

Casselberry said Spring Creek is another suitable spot that may be among the least-crowded snowmobile areas. He also touted Boreas Pass Road, the three forks of the Swan River (near Breckenridge), and areas around Montezuma, including Webster Pass and Deer Creek, but said there are serious parking issues in the latter areas.

Forest Service explains

In a press release, the Forest Service explained the situation:

“The existing 1991 White River National Forest Travel map has been superceded by decisions made in the 2001 Forest Plan Revision to protect wildlife habitat and reduce user conflicts. In some areas that had been open to snowmobile travel, use is now restricted to designated routes, however, those routes will not be designated until after the Forest Travel Management Plan is completed.

In the interim, in areas such as the Frey Gulch drainage and Brewery Hill/Georgia Gulch, snowmobilers are encouraged to stay on established routes, that is, where other snowmobiles traditionally have traveled.

“Regardless of the lack of good maps, it is the responsibility of snowmobilers to know where they are allowed to ride,” said Dillon District recreation supervisor Ken Waugh.

Waugh said the Forest has also received complaints from non-motorized users who do not understand where snowmobiles are allowed.

“Some skiers assume areas where they have not seen snowmobile use in the past are closed to snowmobiles, but that’s not always the case,” Waugh said. “Some of these areas have long been open to snowmobiles, but they are just beginning to have that use.”

Waugh said improved capabilities in snowmobiles have allowed the vehicles to access areas that were previously difficult to reach.

Success story

Waugh said user conflicts can be resolved with good planning and implementation, including signage, maps and strict enforcement. He cited his previous experience on the Boise National Forest in Idaho, where the Forest Service designated trails and play areas adjacent to the Frank Church Wilderness, then followed through with good education, clear maps, intensive signage and enforcement of penalties against violators, with fines of up to $200 for repeat offenders.

A similar effort on the White River forest and the Dillon Ranger District could show similar results, he said.

Other key pieces are also in place locally, according to Casselberry, who explained that a 2002 agreement among various stakeholders spells out a good plan for both mixed-use areas and designated non-motorized zones. The problem, he said, is that agreement hasn’t been adopted, pending the long-delayed completion of the travel management plan.

“People came together in a process facilitated by the county,” Casselberry said of the 2002 effort. “Those rules should be implemented,” he said.

That conclusion was seconded by Brian Holt, who operates a commercial snowmobile touring business at the end of Tiger Road, in the three forks of the Swan River.

“I think there should be a good marriage between motorized and non-motorized users,” Holt said. There is an adequate base of public lands in the county to accommodate both uses, given good management and education.

“We need to know. Knowledge is power,” he said.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at

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