January 22, 2010

Endurance Test



Despite decades of work, access to highly anticipated Gould-Wycolo Trail remains closed


Scoping out the proposed trail route in northern Colorado.



By Kaisja Clark

 

Randy Miller just isn’t the kind of guy who takes no for an answer.

 

Calling him stubborn isn’t the right word. Dogged determination doesn’t quite cut it either. It might just be that Miller is the perfect example of an indefatigable activist for the cause of Colorado snowmobile trail riding.

 

Miller, an engineer and land surveyor, works on behalf of the common interests of the snowmobiling community in North Park, CO, to produce that brass ring for riders: access to backcountry recreational areas.

 

His role as the vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association (CSA) and as former president of the North Park Snow Snakes (NPSS) snowmobile club have taken him to the heart of a cross fire between state agencies as well as environmental concerns in a contest for more trail access for snowmobilers. The issue of snowmobile access isn’t unique to Colorado—the issue is popping up all over the country. Snowmobiling is already a niche sport and the availability of riding areas seems to be a matter of not just of creation, but like the CSA ideal, of preservation.

 

Imagine the frustration you feel every time you head out to purchase licenses for your snowmobile (say, for example, in Idaho): you have to jump through the typical bureaucratic hurdles. Sometimes you leave the place so irritated that you might resort to “borrowing” addresses of friends in neighboring states to just register your sled without so much hassle. If you have an idea of what that feels like, then you might appreciate what Miller has had to endure to fight for the right to ride just 120 miles through the Colorado backcountry.

 

Decades In The Making

Multiply an afternoon wasted chasing a license by roughly five years of jostling for trail access between three state agencies and you might have an inkling of the red tape Miller has been up against. It goes without saying that his investment in this trail has gotten personal.

 

For more than two decades, area snowmobilers have worked and reworked a plan to get a proposed snowmobile trail—the as yet to be officially named trail, Miller has dubbed the Gould-Wycolo Trail—open from Gould, CO, to the Wyoming border, a stretch of approximate 50 miles through the Colorado State Forest. This proposed trail would unite the 35-mile Gould-Walden Trail and the 50-mile Gould-Grand Lake Trail and would serve as a connection that would give snowmobilers access to a dazzling number of trail networks to ride. Once finished, the Gould-Wycolo Trail will have 50 miles of groomed paths and will provide access to an extensive network of trails with massive parks and play areas—the gateway to thousands of miles worth of gorgeous riding to be precise.

 

“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Miller said, of the anticipated trails, pretty views and off-trail play areas.

 

But there have been roadblocks.

 

An August report in The Jackson County Star by Jim Dustin detailed a bevy of problems, setbacks and outright “squabbling among state agencies” that have intercepted sledders’ hopes for the trail.

 

A lack of communication between state agencies, said Miller, is the core of the problem.

 

“I’ve been working on it for last five years,” he said. He added that the club and agencies are on the same page at this point and are working towards mutually beneficial solutions.

 

Complex Issues

On the face of the argument for greater trail access, it seems to be a fairly simple issue. Snowmobilers want to enjoy the beauty of nature and to play in country that is difficult, if not impossible, to reach without the benefit of a sled. However, the story is much more complex than the want for greater access; it’s more of a quandary than that.

 

There is also the usual two steps forward, one step back mentality that accompanies many public changes. Months of meetings, advisory committees, threatened fines, fees and poor notification between key players, penalties and slow approval processes have all gummed up the efforts to connect the trail at one point or another. To illustrate the tension surrounding the issue, the snow club’s trail work was even deemed “malicious destruction of private property” during a Colorado Land Board Advisory Committee meeting in March, according to The Jackson County Star report. Penalties of nearly $10,000 to the NPSS were suggested but not imposed.

 

Kent Minor, manager of the Colorado State Forest State Park, said he is “doing my best to keep all agencies working together. It may take a couple of years. We need to be patient.”

 

Balancing recreationists’ wishes, state agencies and local politics with that of an increasingly burdened ecosystem is surely no easy feat.  Pile a need for intra-agency cooperation on top of a multifaceted system of rules and regulations and you’re in for some hard work. There are also regulations in place to protect threatened wildlife species—only certain kinds of logging are permitted to clear trails, for instance.

 

In this case, a possible option for a portion of the trail would be to cross the sand dunes—prime winter habitat for Colorado deer. There’s also concern from the Colorado Division of Wildlife for greater sage grouse.

One of the reasons the trail utilized the mountain route was to prevent habitat loss in the sage brush areas, Minor said.

There’s also a policy of playing nice with others—snowmobilers have to share the basin with other recreationists, like skiers and yurt dwellers.

 

Miller said the proposed trail was initially given the thumbs up by the Colorado State Parks agency and the club set to work clearing area for the trail, only to find later that the Colorado State Forest Service didn’t give its stamp, jeopardizing the trail with “unapproved logging practices.”

 

Minor said the trail was still in the process of being cleared when work was stopped, but that the way the logging had occurred presented the parks with additional problems relating to the Pine and Spruce Beetle epidemic in the area, and other issues. The state parks and the snowmobiling community are now working together to correct the problems with the initial logging, but not without frustration.

 

Miller said, “We are now basically continuing where we would have when we started, hampered by another one-year delay.”

 

“I am doing my best to keep all agencies working together with snowmobile community and the clubs and eventually we hope the trail will open to the Wyoming system,” Minor said.

 

Overall, the missteps led to the NPSS thinking it had been given the go ahead and then other agencies which handle land management or forestry issues weren’t on board. The proposed route over the dunes is being scrapped in favor of a proposal for an alternate route east of the sand dunes that Miller said only local old-timers know about. The area would still need extensive work and experienced trade loggers to work on it, if that proposal receives approval.

 

Where It Stands

Minor said the trail has been marked closed to any public use and the closures will be enforced. In what he termed a bit of a tense situation, Miner said he hopes to go forward with the plan to eventually open up the trail to the Wyoming border, but added that it will require a great deal of cooperation on the part of all agencies, stakeholders and the snowmobiling community. He also said is not willing to resubmit the trail proposal until he is confident the mitigation from the initial trail clearing satisfies all timber and erosion requirements. Minor is set to turn in his annual work plan for the State Forest State Park to the Colorado State Land Board for approval in the fall. The plan would include a resubmission for the snowmobile trail, if everything falls into place.

 

“Right now the project is on hold until the environmental mitigation on the trail is done (timber and erosion mitigation on the trail),” Minor said. “When that is done, I will resubmit a trail proposal to the State Land Board Commissioners. After that, it is the commissioners' discretion whether the trail will open or not.”

 

The trail mitigation work will be completed in the spring. Both the parks and the snowmobiling community are eager to see the trail mitigation completed and the work to open the trail resumed.

 

“I don’t want to go in and get approval until I am totally sure that all mitigation is done with all involved,” Minor said. “It will probably be looked at carefully, but the sooner we get everything done the better. It’s a big a cooperative effort.”

 

Looking Forward

“We’ve been working with different agencies. We’ve been caught in the middle more than once. It’s a matter of following the rules,” he said. The Walden to Gould stretch of groomed trail will be open this winter.

 

Despite unfamiliar geography, endangered species and bureaucratic hurdles, Miller has hopes that the proposed trail north of the sand dunes may be open in another 2-4 years.

 

“It’ll be at least a year,” he said. “Then we’ll have to work with them and there will be extensive trail work to get it cut through there once it’s approved. Right now we have to get past this section. We pioneered through the timber and need to move on north.”

 

Miller said local snowmobiling clubs have been working on the trail project for more than 20 years. The North Park Snow Snakes and the Colorado Blizzards, both with about 60 members apiece, have been working in support of this trail through the years. He hopes the work of the snowmobilers will not be taken for granted.

 

“I just hope people who use it understand the work that was put into it; it would just take one person to screw it up for everyone else,” he said, adding that educating snowmobilers is key to ensuring access to the trail. The NPSS is eyeing other areas for potential trail development, but there are no names just yet.

 

“We have plans for more trails in the national forest and are currently writing proposals to the U.S. Forest Service,” he said.

 

You can bank on Miller’s continued activism, even as the work for trail access is anticipated to drag on for years to come. As he pointed out, “A lot of it is because I won’t take no for an answer, there are a lot of revolving doors at these agencies but I won’t go away.”




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