Fat bike riders, Forest Service reviewing winter route restrictions around Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Ivan Hass and companion Willy bike down Maroon Creek Road Friday afternoon. Fat bike enthusiasts say as many as 20 riders are sometimes on the popular route at one time.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The White River National Forest staff will be chewing the fat over the next several months.

The agency is working with local chapters of the International Mountain Bicycling Association to consider a policy on where fat bikes will be allowed to travel during winters.

Fat bikes — mountain bikes with extra-large tires for traction on snow and ice — are surging in popularity. However, they are relatively new, so they weren’t specifically accounted for in the 2011 travel-management plan for the 2.3 million-acre national forest surrounding Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Vail and Summit County. The travel plan dictates the uses on the hundreds of miles of roads and trails in the forest. Amending it is a time-consuming procedure.

The White River’s regulations close trails to mountain bikes from Nov. 23 to May 30. Wheeled vehicles, including fat bikes, are limited to plowed routes, routes that are specifically designed as open in the travel-management plan or allowed by a special permit.

Maroon Creek Road is kind of a gray area. It isn’t plowed, but it is groomed and compacted by snowmobile traffic. The U.S. Forest Service has turned “a little blind eye” toward use of the route by fat bikes because Pitkin County says the route is in its jurisdiction rather than the federal agency’s, according to Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

The Forest Service has more control over Independence Pass above the closure gate because it is a state highway traveling through national forest. The Forest Service is “doing the best we can” to keep fat bikes off the pass, Moran said, but it doesn’t have the resources for regular enforcement.

Other routes exist off national forestlands. The Rio Grande Trail is open to fat bikes, and the city of Aspen created a special 41/2 -mile loop trail to accommodate bikes. In the midvalley, Crown Mountain Park has compacted routes to invite fat bikes. The Prince Creek Trails, providing access to the lower Crown, has been popular for fat bikes outside of Carbondale. Those trails are on private land and territory overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Planning on bikers’ dime

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams informed fat-bike enthusiasts last year that the agency will review travel restrictions as long as they spend the time and money to come up with a specific plan. The onus will be on the cycling enthusiasts to work with other stakeholders, such as snowmobile clubs and outfitters with permits for winter activities, according to Kay Hopkins, the forest trails coordinator for the White River.

Assuming a proposal is submitted, the Forest Service will review it through its National Environmental Policy Act procedures, which include public comment. The cycling community will have to pay for the agency’s review, Hopkins said.

While the outcome is far from certain, Hopkins said one outcome can be ruled out.

“It’s not going to be like the summer trail use,” she said. Routes in critical winter range for deer and elk also will be off-limits, she said.

Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, a local chapter of the international association, is heading the planning in the Aspen area. He said the ultimate goal would be to open routes that are currently open to snowmobiles and winter trails that are regularly compacted by users.

Can’t accommodate all users

Rich Doak, recreation staff officer for the White River forest, said the local forest isn’t the only one facing pressure for increased access, and national forests aren’t the only lands facing pressure. The BLM and state parks also are being forced to look at their regulations. He stressed that it’s not a given that regulations will be altered. Not every recreational use is guaranteed its place in the forest.

“We can no longer be the provider to everyone on the national forest,” Doak said. “We have limitations.”

Additional consideration in the review — beyond wildlife habitat — include user conflicts, speed and safety of fat bikes and compact of snow and resource damage.

Hopkins said some snowmobilers are fine with sharing routes while others see potential for conflicts.

“There are a lot of mixed feelings among the clubs,” she said.

Ride and release your inner child

Aspenite Erik Skarvan, owner of Sun Dog Athletics, an outdoor guiding outfitter which offers fat biking, said more routes are needed because the activity will continue to grow in popularity.

“Some days there are 20 bikes on Maroon,” he said.

At a minimum, he wants winter travel approved on Maroon Creek Road, Highway 82 up Independence Pass, some of the Nordic trail system and on backcountry trails where multiuse isn’t a big concern. In practical terms, single-track trails and Jeep roads won’t see a lot of fat-bike use because, although the sport is growing, there aren’t enough people yet to compact trails after snowstorms.

“You need the actual traffic,” Skarvan said.

Fat-bike riding is best on hard-packed snow. He calls fat biking in the “ugly duckling” stage of development, much like summer mountain biking was in the Aspen area in the early 1980s. Use caught fire before the end of that decade. He’s confident fat biking during winters will be similarly explosive because the sport allows riders to “release your inner child.” Riding the fat-tired bikes on snow and ice provides an entirely different sensation than regular mountain biking or road riding, he said. On fat bikes, riders are typically giddy and giggling.

“It’s not like I’m out with the guys road riding and giggling,” Skarvan quipped.