Politics of powder in Aspen’s backcountry
Vail, CO Colorado
SASPEN, Colorado ” It’s an average day on an Aspen Skiing Co. powder tour when Bob Perlmutter points out a pair of snowmobilers cruising into a closed area.
The two powder poachers on sleds are oblivious to the dozen customers in the snowcat sneering through the windows, and Perlmutter, the tour’s manager, is not about to turn around to verbally berate a few law-breaking snowmobilers.
“There you can see snowmobiles go right by a bunch of signs that say, ‘No snowmobiles beyond this point,'” Perlmutter said. “That’s part of the issue.”
Only the skiing company is allowed to use motorized vehicles to bring skiers to the powder on Richmond Ridge, a mix of public and private land roughly twice the size of Aspen Mountain.
In the Wild West of Richmond Ridge ” Aspen’s closest and most accessible backcountry skiing ” the rules don’t always make a difference. Furthermore, enforcing and managing those rules seems to be less and less of a reality.
“It’s kind of a live-and-let-live attitude up there,” said Tim Lamb, a forestry technician with the White River National Forest. “If we do something, we get complaints. If we don’t do something, we get complaints. It’s just a concentrated headache up there.”
And though the controversy has been ongoing for two decades, it’s likely to get worse.
Private landowners are frustrated with snowmobilers speeding over their land and breaking in cabins. Snowmobilers say the skiing company is being greedy with the powder, and at least some of the snowmobilers have Libertarian leanings when it comes to private land. And skiing company officials say they may have to shut down their powder tours operation if snowmobilers continue to track up the area.
Plus, private landowners are selling off their land ” at somewhere around $1 million per tract ” for people to build 1,000-square-foot, off-the-grid cabins. That’s only going to make the ridge, and its access roads, more crowded.
“[Perlmutter] thinks we’re going to put him out of business,” said Billy Zuehlke, a longtime Aspenite and member of Powder to the People, a group that advocates for snowmobilers. “I think he just needs to learn how to share.”
Zuehlke was sitting on a snowmobile at the top of Wine Tree, one of the closed areas. He had special permission from the Forest Service to be there that day, but snowmobilers go there with a certain regularity without permission.
“You see how beautiful it is out here,” Zuehlke said. “You’re, like, wow ” it’s just another level that a lot of people don’t get to see. This is why they want to keep this all to themselves.”
Perlmutter said the skiing company pays the Forest Service about 1 percent of its gross for the permit. A single day on a powder tour costs $350 and the skiing company usually takes out three snowcats with a dozen guests each. This winter, they have been able to run more than 60 days of tours.
It’s no secret that the Forest Service is financially strapped and patrolling areas such as Richmond Ridge is a low priority. It was bad enough at one point that the skiing company pitched in for a Forest Service patrol officer until the Forest Service decided it wasn’t a good idea to take contributions from a permit holder.
“We patrol six to seven times a winter,” Lamb said. “That’s not adequate for an area like that. But it’s typical for everywhere in the district. From our perspective, we are severely lacking in enforcement districtwide. That’s probably true nationwide. This district has 700,000 plus acres and a handful of people who patrol.”
But there are signs of progress on Richmond Ridge. For example, the skiing company is allowing Powder to the People snowmobile users to park their machines at the top of Aspen Mountain. In return, Powder to the People has agreed to stay on marked roads and off closed areas.
But Powder to the People has no more say over most snowmobilers than the skiing company does, leaving both groups frustrated by the lack of enforcement.
“What the [Forest Service] is throwing up their hands on is managing the area,” said Mike Sladdin, founder of Powder to the People.
“It’s a big problem,” added John Miller, the biggest landowner on Richmond Ridge. “[Snowmobilers] go up and use our property. I put some signs up on wooden posts. Would you believe that people stopped and chopped them down? To take the energy to chop the thing in two … We put 24 steel posts up there that say ‘private property stay on the road.'”
Miller compared the problem to someone breaking into his home to sleep because he isn’t using one of the bedrooms. To him, snowmobile tracks on his land is breaking and entering.
“We get partygoers,” Miller said. “The Forest Service last year called me and asked me to lock the gates because they were having people go back there to have parties. They break bottles. I paid to have it cleaned up twice.”
Bill Seguin has spent dozens of days each year for the past two decades skinning along Richmond Ridge and skiing down.
“I don’t think there’s any way the majority of those people can be controlled,” Seguin said. “The lure of taking those machines into the meadows is just too great.”
Seguin is part of the under-represented side of the debate. If anyone has a lack of voice, it’s the folks who don’t use any kind of machine at all. From his point of view, all motors should be taken out of the area, but he says powder tours are the lesser of two evils.
“Powder to the People is a very attractive slogan but it’s more like powder to the machines,” Seguin said. “It’s just destructive to the peace and environment back there.”
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