Hunters, hikers take notice of closed roads

Melanie Wong
Two hikers walk on Mill Creek Road on August 31, 2014, following the road's permanent closure to motor vehicles.
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Forest Service land access

Find out what roads in the White River National Forest are accessible to motorized vehicles by going to the U.S. Forest Service site and clicking on the summer MVUMs (motor vehicle use maps).

VAIL — Brian Davis and his wife have hunted elk up on public land above Vail Mountain ski resort for years. This season, however, will present new challenges.

Mill Creek Road, a dirt U.S. Forest Service road that leads up the ski resort and 10 miles up to Benchmark, is among a number of public roads that are now closed to vehicle traffic. That poses a problem for hunters like the Davises, who are unhappy that their favorite hunting grounds are now much more difficult to access.

“It’s going to be really different now,” he said. “Now we’re going to have to hike up there, and I’m a little concerned about parking in the Vail structure and having my wife walk up Bridge Street with a rifle. We’ll probably have to carry our kill down Bridge Street. That’s not a problem, but as a respectable hunter, I try not to do that to other non-hunters.”

Mill Creek is one of a few heavily used roads that are now closed to motor vehicles as part of the Forest Service’s 2011 land management plan. Other popular roads that are now restricted include Davos Trail in West Vail and Spraddle Creek north of Vail.

“There are reasons for every closure, and in this case there were several. We know Mill Creek is a sticking point for many locals, but there’s no way you can make a decision of this magnitude where some people won’t be upset.”
Dave Neely
White River National Forest district ranger

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Closures and reopenings

District Ranger Dave Neely said the closures went into effect several years ago as part of the White River National Forests’ travel management plan after a public process — but many people are just starting to take notice now as gates go up to block cars, ATVs and dirt bikes.

“It’s nothing new. In 2005, regulations directed all national forests to make a travel management plan, and that included designating the roads that people use for travel and recreation,” said Neely. “What people are seeing now is the implementation.”

In the case of Mill Creek, the road was closed to motor traffic both to protect wildlife habitat and to keep vehicles from interfering with summer resort work and operations. A few years ago, the road was gated above Chair 10, allowing drivers to go up a few miles. More recently, the Forest Service moved the gate nearer to the base of the mountain.

“There are reasons for every closure, and in this case there were several. We know Mill Creek is a sticking point for many locals, but there’s no way you can make a decision of this magnitude where some people won’t be upset,” Neely said.

However, the Forest Service has made amendments to some of the closures based on user feedback. For example, in the original travel plans, parts of Camp Hale and roads leading up to Shrine Pass were closed to ATVs and dirt bikes. The Forest Service reconsidered the rules and came up with a new plan that funded a ranger program — a grant paid for two people to patrol roads, and ATVs and dirt bikes were once again allowed in the area.

Another area reopened to vehicles included roads on Red and White Mountain going over Muddy Pass. Also, roads south of Eagle that access Yeoman Pass re-opened and now allow people can drive all the way to Fulford.

“These have been widely supported decisions. Some people are unhappy based on loss of access, but others are very supportive of the plan. We’re trying to seek a reasonable balance. Part of it is what we can afford to maintain over time,” said Neely.

Adjusting to the closures

Meanwhile, backcountry users are adjusting to the closures, some more willingly than others.

Beth Pappas, Vail Recreation District sports event manager, said the closures only minimally affected races. The courses were usually in unrestricted areas or the race organizers had special permits. One notable exception was the Vail Half Marathon, part of the La Sportiva Trail Running Series.

“Mill Creek Road was part of our half marathon course up until two years ago,” said Pappas. “If the road is closed to vehicles, it makes it really hard to get support up there for the racers. We changed the course, which was easier, but it was a bummer. The old course that went up to Benchmark was kind of iconic and people loved it.”

The Davos Dash race, part of the VRD’s mountain bike series, that brings riders to the top of Davos Trail isn’t expected to change because of the closures. While the road is closed to vehicles, the race is able to get a special permit through the telecommunications company that manages the radio towers at the top of the trail.

Davis, however, worries that the closures seem to restrict access for people who physically may not be able to hike or bike to the tops of these roads.

He said he recently met a mushroom hunter on Vail Mountain who said he had been foraging in a particular spot since 1976.

“This guy can’t get up there to hunt anymore because he’s getting older,” said Davis. “Closing these roads to vehicles has made it available to only the healthy and the wealthy. The only way you can get up is to hire a horseback tour or get up yourself if you’re young and fit enough.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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