The National Forest Service Got Sued
It all started with Winter Wildlands Alliance suing the National Forest Service for not requiring clear, established winter travel management plans pertaining to motorized vehicles. As a result, the National Forest released the Over Snow Vehicle Travel Management Rule on January 28, 2015. The rule became effective February 27 the same year.
The OSV rule more or less says that the Forest Service must designate which roads, trails, and areas on NFS lands are acceptable for motorized use during snow-cover. An over-snow vehicle is defined as “a motor vehicle that is designed for use over snow and that runs on a track and/or a ski or skis, while in use over snow”. Each region of the Forest Service region will establish a system of routes and areas to provide for over-snow vehicle use.
Part of the OSV rule requires that a certain amount of non-motorized areas should be designated along with clear guidelines on winter motorized use.
But what exactly is "fair use"? Fair use is open for interpretation; defining it requires input from the community, balanced discussion, and careful analysis of long term goals.
The OSV ruling could be an opportunity for our community to come together and discuss balanced use of our public lands – to create a travel management plan that respects all user groups and maintains fair use of the Slate River Valley Drainage.
However, the OSV ruling could also be used to divide our community and limit winter access to user groups.
Existing Travel Management Plan
The Gunnison National Forest does have a winter travel management plan in place. Established in 1995, this plan is typically referred to at the Gang of 9 Decision. This management plan was created with input from all winter travel user groups who came together and crafted an agreement. This management plan closed Crested Butte’s Gothic road to motorized traffic while maintaining mixed user access to Kebler Pass, Slate River Drainage, and Washington Gulch Drainage.
However, according to the OSV ruling, the Gang of 9 Decision falls short of the winter management plan required as it only addresses a small part of Gunnison County’s national forest.
Re-evaluation of our Winter Travel Management Plan
Due to the OSV Ruling, our Grand Mesa - Uncompahgre - Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest winter travel management plan will need to be re-evaluated. It's just a matter of when.
At this time, it is our understanding that the Forest Service considers re-evalutation of winter travel to be a low priority.
The planned timeframe would provide the community with the time to gather data and develop a winter travel management plan that would incorporate the interests of all user groups and promote balanced access.
However, special interest groups like Silent Tracks, with the backing of Backcountry Snowsports Initiative (state) and Winter Wildlands Alliance (national), are working to speed up this process and promote a winter travel management plan that serves the interests of a specific user group without waiting for proper Forest Service revisions to take place.
Beginning a Conversation
At Share the Slate, we believe that a winter travel management plan should include the voices and respect the interests of all user groups. We all have a right to recreate on our public lands and any evaluation of user access should begin with a conversation between all user groups and should reflect the needs, desires, and interests of the entire community.
There are numerous user groups who should be included in this conversation: cross-country skiers, snow-shoers, backcountry skiers, fat-bikers, snowmobilers, and hybrid users who utilize snowmobiles to access backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and climbing in the public lands surrounding Crested Butte and Gunnison.
Misrepresenting the Voice of our Community
However, several organizations are actively working to determine who belongs at this conversation and whose interests should be represented. For example, the Nordic Center's Master Plan would expand their groomed trail system to Slate River and Washington Gulch, likely banning motorized access to these and other drainages, preventing several user groups from accessing their public lands.
To expand on the Nordic Center's intentions, they describe this goal in their 2014 Master Plan, "8.1.8 Expand our groomed trail system to include Washington Gulch to Elkton and the Slate River valley to Pittsburg. Having groomed trails up these drainages will require community involvement as the Forest Service readdresses the winter travel management plan."
The Nordic Center's Master Plan expands on their intentions in the appendix:
“The Magic Meadows and upper Slate River drainage are aesthetically remarkable... nearly of National Park caliber. Geologic, ecological and environmental features abound, as do recreational opportunities.
This area, all by itself, creatively planned and designed for a variety of multi-season, non-motorized trails can be the most important signature product needed to elevate the greater Crested Butte valley’s Nordic/Trails reputation to national recognition.
As part of a unique network of diverse but connected trail nodes, it has astonishing multi-season trail use assets. It could become the “flagship” example of a USFS/BLM/Land Trust/private land partnership that is committed to a state-of-the- art non-motorized trails structure.
Definitive zoning and enforceable regulations regarding access by motorized use has to be a priority if the vision for Nordic destination status is to be realized. Motorized use of several drainages—including some designated as non- motorized—is growing and will continue to grow unless enforcement is provided.
It seems evident that given numerous snowmobiling access options at present, it is more than reasonable that the Slate River and Washington Gulch drainages (at the least) should be zoned and enforced for non-motorized use. The more this use/trespass grows, the more a sense of ownership evolves among motorized users that can eventually overwhelm any objections.
Only one user group has conflicts
These organizations and individuals claim that wide-spread user-conflicts exist in our drainages during the winter months, that silent users and motorized/hybrid users are unable to play well together, and cites these conflicts as the main reason for banning access.
However, these claims are based in ignorance. The vast majority of users in the Gunnison Valley Community have had positive experiences within mixed use areas of our National Forest. User conflicts are minimal – an exception as opposed to a rising trend. The majority of winter users are able to celebrate our public lands together, each in their own ways, and without conflict.
Rather than working with the community to develop a balanced plan for winter use, certain organizations and individuals hopes to speed up the review of our winter travel management plan and promote a minority’s agenda – an agenda which denies the rights of several user groups and promotes unbalanced access to our public lands.