Snowmobile access to National Forest examined in Avon’s Wildridge neighborhood
AVON — The U.S. Forest Service’s 2011 travel management plan eliminated access to National Forest land for Wildridge snowmobilers.
Since that time, they’ve been working to get it back, without much success. But a new opportunity has come from an unexpected place — Berlaimont Estates.
The comment period on the effort to built a road to that project is closed, but the town of Avon and the Forest Service are currently accepting comments on how the project could also serve Wildridge residents.
In studying the proposal to construct a road to Berlaimont Estates, a 680-acre parcel in Eagle County north of Interstate 70 near Edwards, Forest Service District Ranger Aaron Mayville saw the private property’s proximity to Wildridge as cause to include it in the Wildridge snowmobile access discussion.
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The Berlaimont Estates Road Access Project looks at Berry Creek Road, and Berry Creek Road to June Creek Road is the current alternative to the Wildridge access points which were closed in 2011.
“In 2011, (the town of Avon) appealed the Forest Service plan, and we got a very, very quick response — the Forest Service did not like that a town was appealing this plan,” former council member Dave Dantas told the Avon Town Council in April. “Rich Carroll was the mayor back then; Larry Brooks was the town manager. We went into Larry’s office and we had a phone conference with the Forest Service. They came right out and said, ‘What will we have to do to get you to lift that appeal?’ And we said open the trail, and they said yes.”
JUNE CREEK SPUR ROAD
As of last winter, no new trails have been opened out of Wildridge, a fact Mayville acknowledged.
“That’s not how we like to do business,” Mayville said.
Working long and late hours now in the spring, Mayville is on a mission to rectify the situation and, in his words, “find a balance” for snowmobilers and those who want to see the land undisturbed.
That balance, Mayville said, may lie in a new road and parking area near Wildridge, which could double as a snowmobile access route in the winter and an emergency evacuation route during the wildfire season.
The road would be a new version of the existing 717.1B road, a rocky spur off June Creek Road that’s currently closed to motorized traffic in the winter. The new June Creek spur would be improved so it could also double as an evacuation route.
Mayville said an improved June Creek spur would be a good compromise between the Berry Creek to June Creek route, which is often unnavigable for snowmobilers in the winter due to low snow, and Forest Service Road 779 out of Wildridge, which was the preferred route for neighborhood snowmobilers before the travel-management plan went into effect but doesn’t have parking, making it less welcoming to others.
The chances of seeing both routes reopen to snowmobilers is slim, Mayville said.
“The major driving factor in 2011 was wildlife,” Mayville said of closing Forest Service Road 779. “What our conclusions, in conduction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, have found, is that we can only have one access point in the winter, motorized, on this hillside.”
The Wildridge neighborhood is indeed an elk habitat.
Or at least it was last year.
On Jan. 25, 2017, snowmobiler Taylor Seaton, who grew up in Wildridge, photographed a herd of more than 50 female elk trekking through the neighborhood en route to June Creek Road.
“They came down from Mountain Star and traversed just above the homes in Wildridge, then down to June Creek and over to Berry Creek,” Seaton said.
Seaton said Forest Service Road 779 is the obvious choice for snowmobilers, but he also sees a lot of reasons why it’s problematic.
“The truth is, snowmobiling was getting more popular in our area at the same time they reduced the access,” he said. “That’s great they’re trying to improve access now, but if a Wildridge route reopens, people from all over are going to come and use it. So it will need a parking lot.”
Seaton, however, said he’s personally against the June Creek spur route.
“I’ve been thinking about it for years, and my family doesn’t even live there anymore, so I’m not saying this selfishly, but honestly I think the solution is to move the gates down to the road level, only make it wide enough for snowmobile and foot traffic, and only make it open to the neighbors in that area around 779 who can park in their driveway and walk,” Seaton said.
“I think it’s a good balance between the elk, which I know use June Creek and Berry Creek roads, and the neighbors who bought those houses with the promise that there would be winter access to National Forest land nearby.”
Avon council member Scott Prince said seeing 779 reopened for winter use was one of his top-tier priorities in running for council in 2014.
But after speaking with Mayville in a work session in April, Price said he is now thinking it isn’t as realistic of a possibility as the June Creek spur road.
“I don’t think (the National Environmental Policy Act process) on 779 is going to show that there’s no impact. The wildlife manager is going to write it the way he wants, and he’s going to show there’s a wildlife impact,” Price said on Thursday, May 10.
Speaking for both himself and Dantas, Prince said he was OK with taking 779 off the table if it means getting something done on the June Creek spur road.
“I’m changing my support,” Prince said. “We have the evacuation route, we’ll get that road improved, and if we can get the Berlaimont folks to pay for the parking lot down at the bottom, great.”
Mayville told the Avon council that a letter from them clarifying what they want the Forest Service to consider could help the process. The council voted unanimously in favor of drafting said letter. Mayville also suggested another hearing on the matter in an effort to garner comments from the public.
“The general public hasn’t had a chance to comment on this, only the other Berliamont pieces,” he said.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.