Lenado snowmobile tour expansion crosses first hurdle | AspenTimes.com

Lenado snowmobile tour expansion crosses first hurdle

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

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing approval of a longtime snowmobile-tour outfitter's request to expand its operation in Lenado.

The Forest Service released a notice of proposed action this week that would allow Western Adventures Inc. to increase its number of service days from 1,100 to 2,500 per winter. A service day is rental of one snowmobile for one day.

The White River National Forest performed an environmental assessment on the proposal last fall. Wayne Vagnuer, who has been operating the tours under permit from the Forest Service since 1985, wasn't allowed to run his tours last year during the study. He said Thursday he has paid about $200,000 for the environmental assessment.

"I have to dig up $200,000 that I can't put into new equipment," he said.

The Forest Service will accept comments on the environmental assessment, then make a final ruling.

Outfitter proved need

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Old Forest Service rules allowed an outfitter in Western Adventures' category to add temporary service days to its permit when demand exceeded the 1,100 service days Vagneur was allowed. He needed the extra days in eight of the past 10 years.

The increase to 2,500 service days is warranted "in order to meet marketplace demand and allow some future growth potential," the environmental assessment said.

Western Adventures provides winter tourists with "safe, high-quality, guided snowmobile tours," the environmental assessment said.

Western Adventures takes snowmobilers on guided tours of Kobey Park, Red Canyon and Larkspur Mountain, all in the high country north of Lenado. The secluded mountains are northeast of Aspen.

The Forest Service said the company offers unique recreation opportunities to people who lack the skills, knowledge and equipment to explore the national forest on their own.

"The area also offers miles of groomed trails and varied terrain, which would otherwise be unavailable to the public," the environmental assessment continued.

Snow coaches required

As proposed, the Forest Service approval would require some tweaks in Vagneur's operation. Western Adventures will be required to have its customers gather at its headquarters at Woody Creek. The company will haul clients by SUVs from Woody Creek to a staging area 9 miles east, about 300 feet past a bridge on the eastern side of Lenado. Customers will then ride snow coaches, similar to snowcats, another 3 miles to where the snowmobiles are parked. That's where the guided tours begin.

Western Adventures maintains a warming hut and bathrooms another 8.5 miles up the forest road, which isn't plowed during the winter but is groomed by Western Adventures.

The Forest Service contended "there is ample room across the season, particularly during weekdays, to expand use without increasing traffic along the Woody Creek road and through the greater Lenado area."

Vagneur said he could abide by the terms of the proposed action.

"It'll have to work. Where else can I go?" he said.

Expanding to 2,500 service days during the course of the winter is what his business needs to exist, he said.

High public interest

Sixty-five people or organizations weighed in during the first public-comment period. This latest public comment process is open to the public. "This public comment period is the final opportunity for individuals interested in or affected by this proposal to share relevant issues and potential extraordinary conditions with the Responsible Official," the Forest Service said in a notice. Only parties making a comment will be eligible to file an objection when the Forest Service reaches a decision.

Vagneur was able to rally supporters of snowmobiling and of his operation in particular. Out of all the comments, he noted, only two or three were in opposition to his permit.

A spot check of the comments by The Aspen Times indicated there was widespread support.

Midvalley resident Alex Parker credited Western Adventures with creating memories that will last a lifetime for people.

"His company allows people that normally couldn't see our beautiful backcountry to take in all its rewards," Parker wrote. "In addition, the grooming of the trails makes for a more enjoyable trip for those who use their own equipment. (Western Adventures) getting this permit renewed is a win win for all."

A letter of opposition was submitted by Lenado Twelve LLC and related companies, whose principals include Frank Peters and Daniel Delano. They said the proposal to increase the service days "has the potential to significantly damage the natural environment and further (what) has already resulted in degradation of quality of life for residents of the Lenado area as a consequence of noise, pollution and disregard of private property boundaries."

Delano and Peters are among Lenado property owners who have protested about private snowmobile riders parking in Lenado along a county road. There is ongoing litigation of that controversy between them and Pitkin County.

Rick Neiley, the attorney for Peters and Delano, said he hadn't seen the environmental assessment yet, but his clients would likely want to submit comments.

Vagneur said he hopes to have his permit in hand in time for operations this winter. He said Forest Service officials have indicated the timing will allow his business to gear up for the season.

This story was edtied to reflect the comment period is open to the public.

scondon@aspentimes.com

TO COMMENT ON PROPOSAL

To review the Environmental Assessment of the proposal by Western Adventures Inc., go to http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=47743.

Electronic comments, including attachments, can be submitted to: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=47743. Email messages should be sent to ebcary@fs.fed.us.