Time for some backcountry regulation?
ASPEN While a snowmobiler and a snowboarder who collided Jan. 14 on Richmond Ridge disagree on just about every detail of the crash and its aftermath, they share an opinion on what should happen next.Both Roy Reed, the snowmobiler, and Doran Laybourn, the rider, believe public agencies need to do more to improve safety on the back side of Aspen Mountain. Both men said in separate interviews Monday that greater backcountry management could prevent accidents like the one that injured them both.”It definitely needs to be regulated,” said Reed, a 47-year-old from New Castle, who described himself as an avid snowmobiler.The Aspen Skiing Co. has “kicked out” other users on some national forest lands in the area as part of its commercial powder tours operation, Reed said. That limits the terrain available to backcountry skiers and snowboarders who use snowmobiles for rides to the top of the hills. Snowmobilers are also restricted to a handful of routes open to the public.When the amount of terrain available to the public is pinched down in such a popular backcountry area, “it causes things like this to happen,” Reed said.Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook said the agency already undertakes extensive management in the area by designating areas where motorized uses are allowed and prohibited. Opening more area for motorized uses wouldn’t improve public safety, he said.Reed and Laybourn collided near Hurricane Point, about 3 miles south of the Sundeck, while pursuing different passions in the backcountry on a Sunday afternoon.Laybourn’s right leg was shattered and he suffered broken bones to his face, as well as lacerations to his face and head. Reed was knocked off his snowmobile and suffered a concussion and various other injuries.Laybourn was in the hospital for nearly two weeks and faces a long recovery period. Reed said he was hospitalized for four days from concussion symptoms, and he still has aches and pains.The sheriff’s office investigated the accident and determined no charges were warranted. It closed its investigation Monday.Laybourn appealed for steps to be taken to improve the safety on Richmond Ridge. “Is it a free-for-all back there or is someone or some agency going to step up to help?” he asked in a statement Monday.His father, Royal Laybourn, has also urged Pitkin County to do more to improve safety in the area so no other family suffers what his has. Since the accident, Royal said, numerous people have told him about their own close calls in that area.Land ownership along Richmond Ridge resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Private patented mining claims intermingle with public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.The Forest Service issues a commercial permit to the Aspen Skiing Co. for Aspen Mountain Powder Tours. The Skico uses about 1,100 acres for the powder tours. About one-half of the acreage is leased from private property owners, the rest is on public land.The area is a magnet for backcountry powderhounds after snowstorms. Its popularity draws snowcats and snowmobiles, along with skiers and riders.Reed said his collision with Laybourn was an unfortunate event where neither was at fault. “I look at it as an accident,” he said.If anyone is to blame, he said, it is the Forest Service and the Skico for restricting part of Richmond Ridge from use by the general public.”That’s who I’m pointing a finger at,” Reed said.The Forest Service views conditions on Richmond Ridge differently. Agency officials have always cried foul when people claim that the Skico has exclusive use of public lands. They note that anybody can ski or ride slopes the Skico uses for its powder tours. Only snowmobiles and other motorized uses are banned.Snowmobiles are allowed on Richmond Ridge Road, Little Annie Road and Midnight Mine Road, which are public routes, along with a couple of other groomed tracks the Skico has agreed to share.Westbrook said the Forest Service distributes a map showing what uses are allowed and where, and it patrols the area heavily in the winter. It is among the top three heaviest-patrolled local areas in the winter, if not the top one, he said.The Forest Service also marks open and closed routes with hundreds of posts and signs.”From our standpoint, we are managing it,” Westbrook said.That said, “inherent risks” remain in using national forest lands, Westbrook added. Heavy use of an area will inevitably include conflicts, he said.The Forest Service is working on a travel management plan for the entire 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. That plan, which is supposed to be completed this year, has the potential to increase management of the Richmond Ridge area.Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said his agency will not play a role in land-use decisions. “Our interest is purely public safety,” he said. That means the office will respond to accidents and participate in rescues involving avalanches.Braudis said the sheriff’s office shouldn’t be a decision-maker on what uses to allow in what areas.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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