Forest Service revisits Lenado snowmobile tour plan | AspenTimes.com

Forest Service revisits Lenado snowmobile tour plan

Snowmobiler parking on the road just above Lenado has been controversial for years and spurred a lawsuit.

The U.S. Forest Service says a longtime snowmobile-tour operator in Lenado must go through an environmental assessment to remain in business because of proposed changes to the permit.

The White River National Forest is soliciting public comments on a proposal to reissue a special-use permit to Western Adventures Inc., a company operated by Howard Vagneur. The outfitter permit cannot be automatically renewed because Vagneur is seeking an increase from 1,100 to 2,500 service days, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer.

In addition, the Forest Service says that Vagneur didn't submit his application in time for a review prior to this winter, so Western Adventures won't be able to offer snowmobile tours until November 2016.

The public-comment period is 30 days. The issue is likely to capture the public's interest because of fights over access to the national forest above Lenado over the past decade. Private snowmobile riders like to park along the Pitkin County road above Lenado to start their journeys. Some Lenado landowners object to the use. Daniel Delano and Frank Peters filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service, the county and Western Adventures over the controversy. Western Adventures was dismissed from the suit. The Forest Service settled out of court and litigation is pending with the county.

Vagneur said the case is a classic example of public-land managers getting bullied by private parties.

"The Forest Service is definitely afraid of getting sued," he said.

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The battle is also a potential case of motorized uses being restricted from public lands in the upper valley, in Vagneur's eyes. He said he doesn't believe he should be forced to go through an environmental assessment to renew his permit. He must pay for the expensive process, he said.

Instead, the Forest Service should have been forced to go through a public process before it accepted the settlement agreement in the lawsuit, he said.

"I don't know how we got stuck with the environmental assessment, but we did," Vagneur said.

Western Adventures has operated snowmobile tours from Lenado onto Larkspur Mountain, Cow Camp and Kobey Park since 1985. (Vagneur said he didn't need a permit for his operation prior to the mid-'80s.) The company was required to apply for more service days because of operational changes implemented by the Forest Service, Vagneur said. Snowmobile-tour operators used to be eligible for additional days out of a pool managed by the Forest Service. That pool is no longer used, so permit holders must apply for more service days than they traditionally use just to cover their bases.

Vagneur said his operation typically generates between 1,500 and 1,700 service days — or one customer renting a snowmobile for one day. So, in reality, he doesn't plan to expand his operation, even though his permit seeks to more than double the service days, he said.

Vagneur also claimed the Forest Service kept changing the rules for his application for renewal of his permit. He claimed he submitted a letter months ago for renewal of his permit, but the agency was debating how to handle the request. He shouldn't be penalized by not being able to operate this winter, he said.

Vagneur asked U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton for help getting a temporary permit to operate this winter.

"They're digging into it," he said.

One part of the Forest Service's settlement of litigation requires Western Adventures to haul its customers by Suburbans to Vagneur's property just east (or above) of Lenado. From there, they will ride in snowcoaches about 2½ miles to where Western Adventures will be required to stage its snowmobiles for the tours.

The condition is supposed to alleviate congestion on Woody Creek Road at the point where snowplowing stops and people park. Vagneur said he isn't clear what the agreement accomplishes. His customers have never been the ones parking on the county road, he said.

"They think if we're not here, people won't go to Lenado," he said. That thinking is flawed, according to Vagneur, because snowmobiliers have been discouraged from using other areas of the upper valley, such as the back of Aspen Mountain.

Vagneur said he is asking his business customers as well as allies in the snowmobiling community to submit comments to the Forest Service in support of his special-use permit.

"We need support from all the people we can get at this point," he said.

The Forest Service's notice for taking public comment acknowledges that the proposal is consistent with the White River National Forest Land Management Plan.

scondon@aspentimes.com

TO COMMENT ON PROPOSAL

Written comments may be submitted via mail, fax, electronically or in person (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays) to Karen Schroyer, in care of Scott Kaden, 620 Main Street, Carbondale, CO 81623. Electronic comments must be submitted in a format such as an email message, plain text (.txt), rich text format (.rtf), or Microsoft Word (.docx). Individuals submitting electronic comments and attachments may send them directly to: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=47743.