Vail Pass meets increased use with new services, more staff
Several improvements this season at popular National Forest winter recreation area
Vail Pass was better positioned than many other public land recreation areas to meet the surge in use that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, National Forest rangers are having to make advancements to the backcountry – a seemingly contradictory concept – to meet the new demand.
Before last year, there were 4 to 6 snow rangers working Vail Pass during the winter season. This year, there are 11. Those rangers have a new warming tent to use as a base camp, from which they can be dispatched more quickly to assist backcountry users who lost a ski, are stranded on a snowmobile, or, in the worst case scenario, triggered an avalanche.
Avalanche safety is the top priority in educating new users, and along with an informational display, the Vail Pass recreation area now has beacon scanning checkpoints, where users can ensure their tracking beacons – crucial pieces of equipment in the backcountry – are working properly before heading out on an adventure.
The beacon checkpoint stations were a result of a private funding and outreach effort from ski/snowboard manufacturer Weston Backcountry and beacon manufacturer Backcountry Access, along with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the National Forest.
Sean Eno with Weston said the National Forest Foundation, a fundraising arm of the Forest Service, helped create the partnership.
“We’ve been working on it the better part of two years,” Eno said.
Vail Pass is a 55,000-acre winter recreation area which allows both motorized and non-motorized use. It’s located on public national forest lands, controlled by the Department of Agriculture through the U.S. Forest Service.
With no funding specifically appropriated to Vail Pass from the federal government, the recreation area relies on fees from day use and seasonal permits. Fees were increased last season to $10 for a day use pass and $65 for a season pass.
“95 percent of those fees come back directly to this area,” said Kate Demorest, the operations manager for the recreation area. “We run Vail Pass like a small business.”
The management of that small business is heavily influenced by its customers through the Vail Pass Task Force, a citizen’s group which weighs in on Vail Pass management decisions. The nonprofit task force was established in the 1990s and is comprised of half motorized, half non-motorized users. The group helped create the use map for Vail Pass, which has areas for motorized use and areas where snowmobiles are not allowed.
“We have a cost-share agreement with the task force so we can bring in funding and pay for special projects, like specific signage, or our credit card machine, which has increased our efficiency,” Demorest said.
White River National Forest Mountain Sports administrator Sam Massman said the partnership with the task force is internal to the upkeep of everything backcountry users require at Vail Pass.
“They oversee the grooming, plowing, our automated fee machine, they clean the restrooms, and they were tied in with the National Forest Foundation and Weston on the beacon checkpoints,” Massman said.
‘John Deer tractors with tracks’
In addition to snowmobiles, motorized use also includes the motorized snow bikes known as timbersleds, snowcats filled with skiers, and “folks driving around in John Deer trackers with tracks on,” Massman said.
In recent years, timbersleds have allowed motorized users to visit the more hard-to-reach places of the national forest, and snowmobiles have also seen major advances in power in recent years, allowing users to navigate the deep powder fields along the trails that were once avoided.
The widening of motorized use and use area has made the job of the ranger much more difficult in recent years, Demorest said, especially “dispatching into areas where we’ve had a lot more incursions of motorized use in non-motorized areas.”
Demorest said rangers posted approximately 600 no-snowmobiling signs on Vail Pass this year, and still more are needed.
“We have our set locations where we know we need to post them, but over the years, it’s been changing because people can get into spots that we have not had to sign,” she said. “And people can rent those high powered machines now, too, so you see a lot of mismatched skills with mismatched machines.”
Massman said in addition to backcountry skiers who use snowmobiles to reach their zones, and the 20 permitted outfitter guides who use the area, unguided snowmobile users on rented equipment is one of the largest motorized user groups in the winter recreation zone.
The new warming tent, sustained with a furnace full of wind-downed trees, provides a much more accessible location from which rangers can be dispatched on a moment’s notice. Rangers are hopeful the tent will be upgraded to a permanent yurt. Demorest said rangers often help novice snowmobilers who are off trail with their sled lodged in the soft snow, unable to get it out.
“It’s a choice that I give to our officers, our rangers, it’s a discretion based on their abilities and willingness, but yes, we see that a lot,” she said. “Same thing with gear, if people lose a ski in an area or pull out a binding, we keep a tally of assists.”
And in recent years, assists are way up. Assisting with the assists is a group of assistants from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which partners with the Forest Service to engage young adults in valuable work experiences within natural resources management agencies. The four youth corps interns working at Vail Pass this winter came to the Forest Service during a time when the seven regular staffers could use the help.
“They supplement our crew,” Massman said.
In addition to the supplemental workers, the beacon checkpoints and the warming hut, the other big addition to Vail Pass this year has been in the digital realm.
Demorest describes the White River National Forest’s newly revamped website – which went live in December – as a clearinghouse of information for those considering a trip to the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.
“It has information about how to plan for your trip, as well as what to do at the trailhead,” Demorest said.
Physical maps of the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area are now available, as well, and a digital map on Avenza, which indicates what recreation uses are allowed, and where, can be found by scanning a QR code on the trailhead signs.
Demorest said the recent improvements have been vast, but sensible.
“We have a lot of high use here, we have a lot of new users, so I think our level of maintenance and signage is commensurate with the type of users that we see here,” Demorest said.