By Janet Urquhart
Post Independent (Glenwood Springs, CO)
Aspen, Colo. - It appears backcountry skiers will be resorting to skins instead of snowmobiles to make powder laps on the back of Aspen Mountain again this winter.
The official fate of public snowmobile access continues to hinge on the long-awaited release of the travel management plan for the White River National Forest, a document that was promised a year ago, but has yet to see daylight.
"There has been a rich discussion about Richmond Hill," said Scott Snelson, new ranger for the U.S. Forest Service's Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. He met last week with Pitkin County commissioners, who inquired about the status of the plan and its vision for Richmond Hill, also known as Richmond Ridge.
Snelson said after the meeting that the plan, which may be ready for release this fall after a biological assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is likely to reflect Alternative G or something close to it. That is the preferred alternative in the draft plan, and one that backcountry enthusiasts say shuts them out of snowmobile access to public lands.
Alternative G limits motorized travel in the Richmond Ridge area to county roads; over-the-snow routes would be off-limits, though Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, owned by the Aspen Skiing Co., would still be allowed to ferry skiers and riders over the snow under its special-use permit with the Forest Service.
"That's certainly the way we're going to manage it this year," said Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the local ranger district.
When the draft travel management plan was open to comment, county commissioners urged the Forest Service to honor an informal "gentleman's agreement" among the Aspen Skiing Co., the Forest Service and backcountry ski group Powder to the People that permitted snowmobilers to take powder laps in the McFarlane's Gulch section of Richmond Ridge.
Commissioner Rachel Richards pressed again last week for reinstituting the agreement, which was in effect for several seasons before it was revoked by the previous district ranger. The agreement has not been in place for the past two winters, and Stark said he doesn't anticipate any change to the status quo for the coming season.
The area of the mountain in question covers nearly 600 acres where Aspen Mountain Powder Tours takes powder hounds on tours of the deep, untracked snow through its 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 Skico snowcats. Now, skiers and riders can still access the backcountry slopes via snowmobile, so long as they stay on the roads. They can, for example, drive snowmobiles out Richmond Ridge, accessed from the top of Aspen Mountain Ski Area, and ski the terrain. They just can't get a snowmobile ride back up the slope after taking a run.
Snowmobilers have been permitted to leave their machines in what's been dubbed "the marina" at the top of the ski area.
Richmond Ridge extends south from the summit of Aspen Mountain, accessing backcountry skiing to both the east and west sides. To the west, on the Little Annie basin side, much of the land is privately owned; the Powder Tours operation leases land in order to offer tours there.
A slew of public comments to the travel management plan, when it was open to input, urged continued public use of several over-the-snow routes on the east side of Richmond Ridge, namely McFarlane's, Wine Tree and WOFTR (Watch Out for the Road), that had been historically open to everyone. Many decried limiting the motorized access only to those who could afford a $350 commercial tour.
The Forest Service's response to all of the comments was identical: "Many efforts are being conducted to find resolution to how this area should be managed in winter. Cooperation from other agencies, homeowners, [public] and the ski company are necessary for success. The Forest Service will select an alternative that it can manage within its means."
The Forest Service patrolled the ridge regularly last winter, according to Stark, who deemed compliance with the rules "pretty good."
Mike Sladdin, founder and president of Powder to the People, said he is bracing for a travel management plan that doesn't formalize the gentleman's agreement. The group will avail itself of the appeal process and continue to fight for the access it wants, he added.
Sladdin said he counts U.S. Rep. John Salazar, county commissioners and Aspen's mayor among the supporters of the group's position. In addition, Sladdin said he has been working with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's office, has met with Scott Fitzwilliams, new supervisor of the White River National Forest, and hopes to arrange a meeting with Snelson.
"We're just hoping to get to the table again with these guys - get some sort of document in there that reflects the gentleman's agreement," Sladdin said.
"I think they're just hoping we'll go away."