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. Current communications with the National Forest indicate that this process will begin in 2020.
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.
Representing the True Voice of our Community
Some individuals and organizations are actively working to determine who belongs at this conversation and whose interests should be represented. Share the Slate formed as a result of these organizations. Original conversations surrounded the Slate River Drainage, but have now moved to include the areas surrounding Crested Butte and entire Gunnison National Forest.
Various 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, we believe 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.
Building a Culture of Compassion and Backcountry Code of Etiquette
Although we believe the claims of conflict are overblown, Share the Slate does recognize that we have increasing numbers of recreationists in our backcountry. With this use increasing, we need to help cultivate a culture of compassion and install a backcountry code of etiquette to help prevent possible conflicts and to improve the experience of all in the winter backcountry.
Remember, most high-use areas occur close to winter trailheads. Venture a little further, and it's very likely you will see few, if any, other people for the during our outing! Abiding by our code of etiquette will help to ensure that all users have a positive experience in high-use areas and will help us maintain our access to these corridors as shared-use.