Powder should be for the people, say Pitkin County commissioners
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Pitkin County would like to see a local group of powder hounds retain access to at least one part of the Little Annie Basin-Richmond Ridge backcountry skiing terrain, even though the U.S. Forest Service apparently has decided otherwise.
The county commissioners, meeting Tuesday in Aspen, essentially endorsed the retention of what is called the “gentlemen’s agreement” among the Aspen Skiing Co., the Forest Service and a group called Powder to the People.
The agreement, which has been in place for several years, permitted Powder to the People to use snowmobiles to take powder laps in the McFarlane’s Gulch section of Richmond Ridge, off the backside of Aspen Mountain.
The only other motorized access to the area is reserved for the Skico’s Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, which has a permit to take powder hounds on a $350 tour of the deep, untracked slopes that cover nearly 600 acres of public land, plus additional private property.
Forest Service District Ranger Irene Davidson announced earlier this year that snowmobiles won’t be allowed to travel off Pitkin County roads into the forest off Richmond Ridge, under preferred Alternative G in the draft White River National Forest travel management plan. The rule would limit the public’s snowmobiles to Little Annie, Midnight Mine, Express Creek and Richmond Ridge roads. The draft management plan is subject to public feedback until Jan. 6, when the comment period will close.
That means snowmobiles would no longer be able to pick up skiers at the bottom of McFarlane’s, or any other slope not ending at a road, and ferry them back up to the top of the hill for another run. But Aspen Mountain Powder Tours would still be allowed to use its slower, quieter snowcats to haul its customers on public lands it has leased for the operation.
Powder to the People has objected, and sent two representatives to Tuesday’s county commissioner meeting to press their argument in favor of limited snowmobile use to reach certain parts of the backcountry.
Shawn Gooding, representing Powder to the People, told commissioners that the group supports “the historic skiing use of the area, not open snowmobiling.”
The commissioners agreed that opening the area to unlimited snowmobile access would not be good management of public resources.
“We want to limit motorized use,” said Commissioner Dorothea Farris, explaining that the reasons include protecting wildlife and preventing the backside of the mountain from being overrun with snowmobiles and skiers.
But Commissioner Rachel Richards argued in favor of finding a way to allow the Powder to the People to still use snowmobiles to play in McFarlane’s. The group has had that privilege under the gentlemen’s agreement, which allowed it to use the “over-snow” route established by the Powder Tours snowcats in the McFarlane’s area.
Richards urged commissioners to “maintain the status quo, in preserving the gentlemen’s agreement.” Richards’ position won general support from commissioners Patti Clapper and Michael Owsley.
But that would result in “continuing the conflict back there” between the Skico’s Powder Tours and the People’s snowmobilers, Commissioner Jack Hatfield said.
In that case, said Powder to the People’s Michael Sladdin, the group might feel forced to advocate open snowmobiling if its members feel they have been unfairly banned from using public lands.
“I feel the skiing company has a legitimate business back there,” conceded Sladdin, “and the community has legitimate business back there, too.
“If they’re not going to give us the option to get out there at all [by restricting snowmobiles to the county roads] we would have to push for the other alternative,” meaning open snowmobiling.
Sladdin told the commissioners that the Skico will still be making room for the “marina,” an area at the top of Aspen Mountain where scores of privately owned snowmobiles park in the winter months.
But Peter King, mountain manager at Aspen Mountain, said the agreement to keep the parking area available to the public seven days a week, day and night, would only last if snowmobilers obeyed the rules and kept to the county roads on the
He also said the Skico probably would be amenable to an exemption allowing the People continued use of McFarlane’s Gulch, should the county commissioners manage to convince the feds to go along.
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In the six weeks since Independence Pass has been open this season, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office already has received 15 reports of semi-trucks trying to or actually driving over the pass.