Snowmobilers make progress on Richmond Ridge access issues
The future of backcountry skiing on land adjacent to Aspen Mountain is looking brighter for a group of snowmobilers who earlier this winter were told they could no longer access certain terrain. Bill Westbrook, the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen and Sopris district ranger, said he would consider issuing a group permit to the snowmobilers, who are primarily backcountry skiers. That’s a big change from last month, when Westbrook said, “It wouldn’t be appropriate to issue a permit for a commercial activity and in the same breath turn around and issue a group permit to folks that would take away from the commercial venture.” That commercial venture is Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, a snowcat-skiing operation that conducts trips on the back of Aspen Mountain. Earlier this winter, the snowmobilers’ attempt to acquire a permit was shot down. The Forest Service manages the public lands on the back of Aspen Mountain – commonly referred to as Richmond Ridge. Since 1984, motorized use in the area has been restricted to county roads. But until this winter, the law hadn’t been enforced. Jon Thompson, the Aspen Ranger District’s snow ranger, began patrolling the area and enforcing the policy in December. Mainly, Thompson has just been alerting snowmobilers to the restrictions. He said most have been cooperative and confrontations have been minimal. But while the snowmobilers have complied, they haven’t exactly been thrilled. Many have been using their sleds to spin laps off Richmond Ridge for years, a practice that has virtually become ritual. The finger-pointing quickly settled on the Aspen Skiing Co., which operates the powder tours and pays part of Thompson’s salary and expenses. Westbrook said receiving payment from the Skico – which he called a collection agreement – is a common practice and hasn’t fueled the new enforcement policy. “We wouldn’t enter into a collection agreement with someone just to meet their individual desires,” he said. Still, feeling mistreated and outnumbered, the snowmobilers banded together and created a group call Powder to the People. Mike Sladdin, one of the group’s leaders, said the snowmobilers never knew they were breaking any rules and they didn’t intended to negatively impact the Powder Tours business. He added that members of Powder to the People usually don’t even ski the Powder Tour’s milder, less avalanche-prone terrain. Furthermore, he believes the two can coexist peacefully. “Some people think our goal is to get the Skico and the commercial people out of there, but that’s not our position,” he said. “Of course we can share it – live and let recreate.” Apparently, Westbrook doesn’t disagree. He and Sladdin spoke earlier this month, and Sladdin was pleased with the outcome. “What I told Mike was I would sit down with [Powder to the People] and Powder Tours and see if there isn’t a compromise there,” Westbrook said. “I’m always willing to explore different ideas and solutions.” Westbrook said he had never closed the door on the issue, despite his comments last month. “I don’t know if anything changed,” he said. “I just had a chance to talk with these folks more, learn a little more history from it and understand it better for myself.”My intent wasn’t to shut the door and not deal with it.” Furthermore, Westbrook said the fact the group formed Powder to the People was a big plus. “It’s easier for us to work with groups,” Westbrook said, adding that the members appear determined to act responsibly and rationally. Sladdin said, “He’s gotten a lot of calls and I think he realizes how volatile an issue it is, and he might consider opening it up to responsible users.” What this all comes down to is the Forest Service’s travel-management plan for the White River National Forest, which after 20 years will be revised this fall. There are two basic options the Forest Service is considering: status quo, or lifting the restrictions on motorized use and basically allowing anyone to go anywhere on Richmond Ridge. If the Forest Service decides to maintain the current regulations, Powder to the People may still be able to access the land via a group permit. Powder to the People is gearing up for the public comment period, which will begin this spring and continue for 90 days. It has started its own website – powdertothepeople.org – and has scheduled at least one informal get-together at The Cantina in Aspen on March 30. “I think it’s important to set a direction up there on Richmond Ridge that will be lasting,” Westbrook said. “I think we could put the history of all the different conflicts and disagreements up there behind us.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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