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When your backyard is everyone’s backyard

Kelly Coffey

Oran Palmateer’s home is at the end of the Minturn Mile. With up to 13,000 skiers and snowboarders a year careening down that trail from Vail Mountain, it’s amazing he hasn’t packed up and moved. But Palmateer and his wife, Paula, love having access from their home into the National Forest via the Minturn Mile. In fact, in 1981, they donated that end of the trail to the Forest Service to keep the Minturn Mile intact.

Regardless, their ideal location has created issues for the Palmateers that most homeowners never have to deal with.

Combine one of Colorado’s fastest growing populations with a county that is more than 80 percent public land, and we have more and more Eagle County residents moving in next to our local wilderness. The easy access to open space, beautiful views, and close contact with wildlife may seem like living next to a federal land is a dream come true. But issues that arise for both homeowners and public land managers can become nightmarish.

The few years after the Palmateers donated the end of the Minturn Mile, many skiers and riders found a convenient shortcut near his house instead of sticking to the designated trail along the edge of his property. That loss of privacy wasn’t what they had in mind when they gave the land.

Cal Wettstein, a Forest Service ranger, works to find solutions to problems that arise because homeowners live on the borders of national forests.

The slogan “your National Forest” is meant to encourage responsible ownership by its users. Some neighbors of public lands, however, have taken that slogan a little too far. Some homeowners who share a border with wilderness “expand” their backyard, Wettstein said. He has seen people mow the grass or build decks that extend into the forest. He even came across a hot tub where the boundary line between their yard and the forest went right through the middle of the tub.

Usually those cases are corrected politely, with a letter reminding the homeowner of the boundary location. Rarely does the law need to get involved, Wettstein said.

A more common problem is rogue trails that appear off of people’s yards and extend into the forest. These ill-planned trails result in erosion, problems with wildlife, and a general blight on the scenery.

That’s the biggest issue that the Bureau of Land Management faces, said Kay Hopkins, the outdoor recreation planner for the BLM. Many times users – whether it’s hikers, horseback riders, ATVs or mountain bikers – don’t stick to BLM roads, beating down their own trails where it’s convenient.

“The user-created trails are always an issue,” Wettstein said. “We work closely with neighborhoods to try to create specific trailheads and create a trail system that is sustainable.”

One neighborhood that Wettstein works closely with is Singletree in Edwards. A few years ago the Singletree Property Owners Association worked with the Forest Service to create “portals,” or designated links from Singletree into the White River National Forest that borders the neighborhood.

“We’ve had a very excellent working relationship with the White River National Forest, and Cal Wettstein in particular,” said Chuck Powers, the current president of the Singletree Property Owners Association.

Power is more worried about nearby forest land being turned into the latest housing development. Land swaps, which allow the Forest Service to exchange public land for privately owned land, has already happened on land adjacent to Singletree.

The Forest Service takes those concerns seriously. They talk to nearby residents when planning any future land exchange, said Wettstein.

“If you respect what they [the Forest Service] do to protect public land … they will respect your needs,” Powers said.

To answer the Minturn Mile’s shortcut problem, the Forest Service, Vail Resorts, and the Palmateers together found a solution. They built a fence on the east end of Palmateer’s land and added closure ropes (as seen at the ski area boundaries), to funnel the Minturn Mile traffic along its proper course. That solution arose over time, finally achieving success in the early ’90s, and has worked well ever since, Palmateer said.

“Any time I need to have that rope replenished, I call them [Vail Resorts]. They’ve been wonderful,” he said.

The most famous backcountry trail in the valley, the Minturn Mile, adds to the local culture. It’s a must-do for anyone who lives in the valley and has become the trip highlight for many visitors. Palmateer even saw an article about it in United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Hemispheres.

Donating the land was a no-brainer for the Palmateers, despite the issues that arise when 13,000 skiers and riders head toward their backyard. VT


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