Ecologists’ encounter with snowmobilers in Aspen wilderness on July 3 raises broader concern
Three Aspen-area ecologists were flabbergasted on a recent July morning when they came across two snowmobilers running their sleds down fragile, snow-free terrain on the Upper Lost Man Loop.
The three hikers feel the incident was indicative of a growing mentality that “anything goes” on public lands in the pursuit of fun.
Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, was hiking with two other women July 3 when they came across the two snowmobilers close to the Upper Lost Man Trailhead. The women were collecting data for a research project examining alterations in bloom time for alpine flowers.
The snowmobilers were running their sleds over the wet ground to reach the parking area along Highway 82.
“There was no snow anywhere in Lost Man Basin at all,” Teague said. “The issue is all the damage it does to the fragile tundra.”
When confronted by the women, the men claimed they were allowed to be in the area. They said they researched their route on a map and avoided wilderness — where all motorized and mechanized uses are banned.
Teague knows the Independence Pass terrain as well as anyone, by the nature of her job. The foundation was started 30 years ago to restore and protect the ecological, historical and aesthetic integrity of the pass corridor. Teague has been at the helm of the organization since May 2015. She knew the boundary for the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness starts just a short distance from the trailhead in that area.
Teague said one of her colleagues, Dawn Barton, gave the sledders an earful about their decision. Barton said she believes the snowmobilers started their trip farther up the road on Independence Pass, ran out of snow and headed down the alpine terrain toward the Upper Lost Man Trailhead rather than turning around.
Teague and Barton said the snowmobile left visible marks on the terrain, which was exceptionally wet for that point in the summer because the snowpack had only recently receded.
“During spring, vegetation is the most sensitive,” Barton said.
Vegetation won’t have an opportunity to rebuild any leaves and buds that were damaged, she said. The tracks cut into the terrain also potentially caused root damage.
Barton said she returned to the site 10 days later and could still see the tracks left by the snowmobiles.
“My contention while talking to the snowmobilers was they were being environmentally unconscionable,” Barton said.
Teague said she’s not sure the message sunk in. The snowmobilers were possibly “a bit more contrite” at the end of the conversation.
Enforcement is always an issue for the U.S. Forest Service. One law enforcement officer covers 750,000 acres in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The agency relies, in large part, on self-policing and encourages forest visitors to learn the travel management regulations and other rules.
Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the district, said there is no gray area about snowmobile travel along the Independence Pass corridor.
“It is clearly a violation for snowmobiles to be off of designated routes during the winter season,” she wrote in an email before heading into the field Tuesday morning. Over-the-snow travel is restricted to designated routes, which is essentially Highway 82, she said. Wilderness is not a designated route.
In the summer, Highway 82 and Lincoln Creek Road are the only designated motorized routes, Grail said.
Teague said she is concerned the July 3 encounter wasn’t just an isolated, odd incident. Some skiers using the Independence Pass corridor reported encountering snowmobilers or seeing their tracks in wilderness along the Lost Man Loop and in other areas, she said.
The two men on July 3 were in their 20s or 30s, Teague estimated. She sensed they weren’t from the area because they didn’t seem to know the terrain. However, she feels some of the snowmobilers traveling off the highway in the winter are local residents. She hopes that Independence Pass Foundation and partners such as Carbondale-based Colorado Wild Public Lands and the Forest Service can build awareness of the travel restrictions and the reasons they should be heeded.
“It would be great if the community enforced this ethic,” Teague said.
Barton said the swelling population of Colorado as a whole and the Roaring Fork Valley in particular will make illegal use of public lands a bigger issue.
“I feel we’re on a collision course in some of our backcountry areas,” Barton lamented.
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The National Weather Service is predicting a La Nina weather pattern to continue through this winter, but don’t go turning in your ski pass just yet.