Forest Service eyes changes on back of Ajax | AspenTimes.com

Forest Service eyes changes on back of Ajax

ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest Service is sick of refereeing conflicts between skiers, snowmobilers and powder tour operators in the Richmond Ridge area, so it’s eyeing wholesale changes, the agency disclosed Tuesday.

Officials in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District will advise the White River National Forest supervisor to open some public lands on the backside of Aspen Mountain to public motorized uses, allowing greater access for snowmobilers, said Tim Lamb, a spokesman for the agency. The changes for the 2008-09 winter will be suggested as part of the forest’s travel management plan, a document that determines uses of roads, trails and other terrain.

The popular backcountry playground on the backside of Aspen Mountain is a small area with fewer users than other parts of the forest, but it requires an inequitable amount of Forest Service staff time and money, Lamb said. The enforcement challenges have worn down the agency.

“This area has been contentious for 20-plus years and the Forest Service has never been able to resolve the conflicts and animosity over access up there,” said a Forest Service document supplied by Lamb.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s has between 600 and 800 acres of national forest along Richmond Ridge under permit for use for its guided powder tours. Aspen Mountain Powder Tours also leases private lands.

The Forest Service currently restricts public motorized uses. Snowmobiles can use public roads and one route groomed by the Skico. Some backcountry skiers and snowboard riders object that the policy prohibits them from using public lands because they cannot use a snowmobile as a shuttle.

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Lamb said the enforcement challenges are numerous. Private and public lands are mingled, so violations are impossible to manage. “Forest Service does not have the staff [or] time to play the enforcer role up there more than a week or two a winter, which is not adequate,” said the agency’s notes on a meeting about the situation.

Forest Service officials also were reluctant to continue playing enforcer without broader public support. A draft of the travel management plan was released last year. Scores of public comments were submitted in support of opening public land on Richmond Ridge to motorized uses. A citizens’ group called Powder to the People has pressed for the changes for years.

In addition, Pitkin County “is not able to or interested in limiting use,” the Forest Service noted. Comments from the Pitkin County Commissioners favored increased public access.

Lamb said the Forest Service’s direction could spur a public backlash. “Certainly that will generate a whole slew of comments,” he said.

The Skico opposes increased motorized use on the public lands it has under permit because it could interfere with its powder tours. The fear of the Skico and other backcountry users is that snowmobilers will tear up powder stashes coveted by skiers and riders.

The Forest Service hopes that users will work out cooperative agreements that are a template for future success if it stops playing the role of enforcer.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.