New winter rules could open back of Ajax | AspenTimes.com

New winter rules could open back of Ajax

ASPEN – A citizens group fighting to increase access for skiers and snowboarders to public lands on the back of Aspen Mountain claimed Monday that local U.S. Forest Service officials now support its position.

Mike Sladdin, founder and president of Powder to the People, said officials in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District told him twice in the last month that they will recommend opening parts of the Richmond Ridge area to public motorized uses, such as snowmobiles.

The recommendation, which is a reversal for the agency, will be part of the Forest Service’s work on a travel management plan for the White River National Forest, he said.

“Keeping people out of there doesn’t seem to be working,” said Sladdin.

New rules, if adopted, will apply in winter 2008-09 ” after the travel management plan for the White River National Forest is complete. Existing rules will remain in place this winter.

Calls to numerous Forest Service officials weren’t immediately returned Monday, so it wasn’t possible to confirm Sladdin’s interpretation of the agency’s direction.

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However, Aspen Skiing Co. officials are aware that the Forest Service’s apparent preferred alternative proposes opening areas to increased motorized use, said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. The Skico is concerned about that direction because it “would definitely negatively impact our snowcat operation,” he said. “It’s going to tear up the area for everyone.”

If the Forest Service recommends opening some of the public lands to motorized uses, the Skico will object during the public comment period, Hanle said.

The Forest Service has limited motorized travel on 800 acres of national forest on the east and west sides of Richmond Ridge since 1992. It didn’t enforce the regulations until winter 2004-05.

Skiers and riders aren’t restricted from public lands. However, the use of snowmobiles is limited to public roads, such as Little Annie, Midnight Mine and Richmond Ridge. The Skico’s Aspen Mountain Powder Tours has also agreed in recent winters to share one route it grooms for access to powder runs on the east side of the ridge.

The powder tours use public land that it has under permit and private land that it leases in the Little Annie area on the west side of Richmond Ridge. It also has public land under permit on the Difficult Creek side on the east of Richmond Ridge. All told, the Skico uses about 1,100 acres for its commercial snowcat tours.

The Forest Service’s decision to open to motorized uses would affect only public lands. Sladdin said it is his understanding that it would affect public lands on the east side of the ridge, in areas like McFarlane, Wine Tree and Ptarmigan. The amount of acres potentially affected wasn’t available.

The current restrictions on the public’s use of snowmobiles prevents backcountry skiers and riders from using the machines as a shuttle to the top of the slopes. The Forest Service justified the restriction as a way to maintain quality powder conditions and reduce conflicts on public lands.

Powder to the People has protested the Forest Service’s policy for years, maintaining that it prevents people from using public lands. It objects to preserving powder stashes exclusively for a commercial operation. The Skico’s guided backcountry trips cost more than $300 per day.

The restrictions have been an enforcement challenge for the Forest Service. National forest lands and private property ” often old mining claims ” intermingle like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s often impossible to determine property boundaries.

Powder to the People and the Skico share a desire to prevent snowmobiles from cutting across powder-filled slopes that provide a kind of promised land for backcountry enthusiasts. If some of the area is designated open for motorized uses, it will be tough to keep people off those that are not, Sladdin acknowledged: “That’s going to be a tough one.”

Powder to the People aims to start the education process this winter, when restrictions are still in place. Sladdin said the citizens group hopes to work with the Forest Service, Skico, Pitkin County and private landowners along Richmond Ridge to place signs urging people to stay on designated routes, posting speed limits and indicating trailheads.

“Information will hopefully quell some of the chaos up there,” Sladdin said.

He also hopes it will prove that the area can be managed responsibly without the restrictions.

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

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