Sleds vs. Skico in the backcountry
On the back of Aspen Mountain exists an enormous winter playground choked with deep powder and crisscrossed with public and private land. Whether accessed by foot or motorized vehicle, the area has been used by an assortment of backcountry enthusiasts for years. But now, snowmobilers – mainly those who are backcountry skiers using their sleds to spin quicker laps – are being told they can no longer access national forest land. Meanwhile, Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, a snowcat-skiing operation that conducts trips on the back of Aspen Mountain, is permitted to go wherever they please. It’s a common occurrence in mountain towns of the West, where land-use issues have been the source of more clashes than 1980s ski fashion. The U.S. Forest Service began cracking down locally earlier this winter, thereby putting a stop to a long-standing tradition and perceived rite of passage. Snowmobilers in part blame the Aspen Skiing Co., which operates Powder Tours, for attempting to monopolize the public lands in the White River National Forest. But Bob Perlmutter, co-director of Powder Tours, maintains that’s not the case. “These are Forest Service regulations and a Forest Service officer [enforcing them], not Skico employees and regulations,” he said.
For its part, the Forest Service says nothing has changed in terms of the rules and regulations on their land, it’s just that they are now enforcing those rules and regulations. “Essentially, since 1984, the area has been a managed area that only allows [motorized] use on county roads,” said Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District. Those country roads are Richmond Ridge, Midnight Mine and Little Annie. But snowmobilers believe that the effort to enforce the rules was spearheaded by the Skico. “The reason they’re cracking down is because the Skico is pushing them that way,” said Mike Sladdin, one of many snowmobilers and backcountry skiers who have enjoyed the area for years. “They’re supplying [the Forest Service] with machinery and paying the guy’s salary … they’re positioning themselves so they can have exclusivity on public lands.”The Forest Service decided to allow all motorized vehicles to use the county roads 20 years ago, as several people live in the area and snowmobiles are the primary mode of transportation. Operating a vehicle off of those roads, however, has never been authorized. Only Powder Tours has been granted access to travel off of those roads via a special-use permit granted by the Forest Service. So the snowmobilers decided to band together and apply for a special-use permit. No such luck. Bill Westbrook, the Aspen and Sopris district ranger, said it would not make any sense to issue another special-use permit for the same area. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to issue a permit for a commercial activity [Powder Tours] and in the same breath turn around and issue a group permit to folks that would take away from the commercial venture,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook added that if the snowmobile group expressed interest in obtaining a special-use permit for a different area in the White River National Forest, he “would certainly look at that.”Perlmutter said there has been friction between Powder Tours and private snowmobilers for years. Most of it is due to backcountry skiers spinning laps in Powder Tours’ terrain, essentially poaching their fresh tracks. But based on what Sladdin claims, those tracks could be made by anyone, including skinners or hikers, who have a right to travel and ski wherever they want.”When we see a cat, we stay out of their way – that’s the rule I’ve always gone by,” Sladdin said. “I never wanted to be in their way or eat the powder cats’ powder, but we never thought we were breaking the rules by going out there.”And for the most part we don’t even ski the stuff the Powder Tours are interested in. They’re skiing mellower slopes and less dangerous exposures.” In December, Jon Thompson, the snow ranger for the Aspen Ranger District, began patrolling the back of Aspen Mountain. Four days a week, four hours a day, he roams the terrain and makes his presence, albeit low-key, known. He stops nearly every snowmobiler he sees, and simply reminds them that motorized travel is only allowed on the three county roads. He has the power to issue tickets, but in the past three months has issued only verbal warnings. Perhaps it’s his easygoing nature that has kept the conflict from boiling over; Thompson said everybody has been highly cooperative and understanding, and rule-breakers are at a minimum.
However, the concerned parties have now reached a crossroads as the White River National Forest’s 20-year travel-management plan is coming to an end. The Forest Service is currently in the midst of drafting its new travel-management plan, which will include a 90-day public comment period, probably sometime this summer. Stark said there are basically two scenarios: “status quo or open all of the area to motorized [use].” The latter, however, seems unlikely as it would put Powder Tours’ business in jeopardy.But the snowmobile advocates don’t plan on just rolling over. They’re going to rally the troops and get the word out. They also plan to launch a website specific to the cause that will include news and information, links to avalanche reports, and articles related to their cause. “We’d like to be able to go back there and ski when conditions permit and not feel weird about it,” Sladdin said. “We should be given a fair shake.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center has contributed to the state’s avalanche center for several years to help with forecasting for backcountry visitors. It cannot hold in-person fundraisers this year so its asking supporters to sign up for an annual membership.