Meadow Mountain sledding deemed ‘just too dangerous’
Looking for a free day of sledding on United States Forest Service land on Meadow Mountain near Minturn?Forget about it.It’s not the most popular decision Forest Service ranger Cal Wettstein has had to make since taking over as top dog at Minturn’s Meadow Mountain ranger station two years ago; but the possible closing of the sledding hill is a reality locals and visitors may have to deal with permanently.The hill is just too dangerous, Wettstein says."This past month, with the lack of snow and the number of freeze-thaw cycles, the hill got icy and rough in some places," he says.The sledding hill, located at the base of the former Meadow Mountain ski area two miles north of Minturn, has been buzzing with families screaming down its slick lower slopes since the 1970s. Back in 1970, a fledgling Vail Associates purchased the ski area and closed the runs, creating a de facto sledding hill. At some point during the ’70s – neither the Forest Service nor Minturn town officials can recall when – a verbal agreement between the town and Forest Service was struck, establishing the ongoing existence of the free sledding hill as a courtesy to local public land users.But serious sledding accidents began to pile up over the years, including an injury that has resulted in a court case with the Forest Service. Wettstein says the case is still pending and he’s not allowed to comment. So all those accidents have taken their toll on the Forest Service, and the Town of Minturn."We’ve spent thousands of dollars responding to (emergency) calls and accidents out there, and at some point you have to say, ‘Is it worth it?’" says Minturn Town Manager Alan Lanning.Lanning is referring to a time when Minturn had its own volunteer fire department – they are now part of the Eagle River Fire Production District. It was a time when sledders had free reign over the hill, able to catch air on a giant tire tube on any of the lower slopes. But last year, after a series of what Wettstein characterizes as "serious accidents," the Forest Service took control of the hill and designated a small portion for sledding. It’s equipped with fences and a hay-bale wall to buffer those high-speed descents that would otherwise see sledders kissing the bottom side of a split-rail fence at the edge of the parking lot.But despite future concerns over liability on the hill, the new safety measures appear to be working."We’ve only had a few minor injuries this year," says Wettstein. "Nothing like it was a few years ago."So why shut down the Meadow Mountain sledding hill?"I’m getting pressure from my superiors to close it," Wettstein says.Because the Forest Service has no liability insurance to cover those sledding accidents, Wettstein says his bosses can’t picture another year of sledding."People just don’t realize how fast they go," he says.Two years ago Eagle resident and fly-fishing guide Bob Nock had an idea that would have taken the liability out of the Forest Service’s hands. He proposed the creation of a snow park, complete with sledding, tubing, a concession kiosk, and a per-hour rate.But locals said they were tired of paying for winter fun and letters to the editor popped up in local newspapers decrying Nock’s for-profit plan. The Minturn Town Council wasn’t interested in supporting a plan that would end one of the few free winter recreation options left to local residents either, so Nock withdrew his proposal.Locals apparently didn’t want Meadow Mountain to change.About six years ago a group of valley residents headed by Vail founder Pete Seibert and Minturn native Gerald Gallegos formed the Meadow Mountain Foundation for the sole purpose of preserving and improving the sledding area. But despite the fact that improvements would not change free access to the public, Pete Seibert, Jr. says folks just weren’t interested in supporting the group’s plans."Pete (senior) started the foundation because he felt badly that there were no facilities over there for the people using the hill," Seibert, Jr. says. "We came up with a plan for a shelter and fire pit, but people weren’t interested in supporting it."With the foundation running into a lack of support, Seibert, Jr. says the group just backed off and disbanded. However, if there was enough evidence of community support, he says it is possible the group could reform and investigate options to preserve free sledding on the hill. And that’s just the kind of public commitment the Forest Service’s Wettstein says is needed to keep people sledding on Meadow Mountain."If we could get into some kind of agreement with someone who would step up and provide the liability insurance, it could stay open," Wettstein says.As for the Town of Minturn, Lanning says with a history of paying for multiple emergency calls and a struggling town budget, paying for liability insurance is not in the cards."I think from that standpoint, I would recommend the town not get involved in any liability claims," the town manager says.For now, a very small bottom portion of the sledding hill is open. Several rows of blue fences barricade the remainder of the sledding hill. And with those imposing fences signaling a no-sled zone, a once lively hillside sits empty and unused.