Aspen powder hounds await feds’ White River travel plan
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado – The fate of public snowmobile access to ski powder on the back of Aspen Mountain awaits the release of a long-awaited travel management plan for the White River National Forest, but judging from a recent letter penned by the acting forest supervisor, snowmobilers may not get their wish.
The travel management plan is due out in August or September, Forest Service district ranger Irene Davidson told Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday. The plan will either accommodate off-road travel by snowmobilers or it won’t, she said.
“Under the terms of travel management, we can’t enter into any more discussion about it until the decision has been made,” Davidson said.
In December, while the plan was still open to public comment, commissioners urged the Forest Service to retain a “gentleman’s agreement” among the Aspen Skiing Co., the Forest Service and backcountry ski group Powder to the People; the agreement permitted snowmobilers to take powder laps in the McFarlane’s Gulch section of Richmond Ridge, off the back side of Aspen Mountain.
Last winter, the Forest Service revoked the agreement after it had been in place for several seasons.
“As it’s being managed right now, there is no gentleman’s agreement,” Davidson said.
Last month, Mike Sladdin, director and founder of Powder to the People, laid out the group’s argument for motorized access over the snow in a letter to Colorado Congressman John Salazar.
Mary Morgan, acting supervisor of the White River National Forest, responded to Sladdin’s assertions with her own letter to Salazar.
Copies of both letters were given to county commissioners.
Sladdin “has failed to garner support from critical stakeholders, such as the Aspen Skiing Company and the affected private landowners, that would be required to make his proposal viable,” Morgan told Salazar in her letter.
Commissioners have said they don’t want to see expanded snowmobile use in the backcountry off Richmond Ridge, but don’t want to see traditional public access curtailed, either, Commissioner Rachel Richards stressed.
Commissioners pressed Davidson for assurance that a resolution that accommodates all users is still possible.
“I guess my question is, is the door open or is the door closed?” Commissioner Patti Clapper said.
The travel management plan, whatever it stipulates, can be amended, Davidson said. “It’s not set in stone,” she said.
The area of the mountain in question covers nearly 600 acres where the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Aspen Mountain Powder Tours takes powder hounds on $350 tours of the deep, untracked snow through a special-use permit with the Forest Service. It hauls customers to the backcountry slopes, where they ski down and are ferried back up on a snowcat.
The gentleman’s agreement allowed the public to do the same in the McFarlane’s Gulch section, using an over-the-snow road created by the Skico’s snowcats. Now limited to county roads, backcountry skiers can still ski or snowboard on the public land on the back of the mountain, but can’t use snowmobiles to take powder laps. They can use the roads to reach the slopes, but that’s it.
In his letter, Sladdin wrote: “Our argument for equal motorized access to a non-pristine recreational area is simple: it’s only fair. Exclusivity and extreme wealth are unfortunate Aspen stereotypes, but the backcountry has always been and should continue to be an even playing ground. … Perhaps motorized use should not be increased any further, but it should be a fair mix of public and private (commercial) skiing.”
The groomed routes the Skico creates for its snowcat powder tours are not public roads, Davidson said.
“If you amend the [Skico] special-use permit, you’re asking a private entity to invest funds for a public use without compensation,” she said.