Skiers, snowmobilers mixed over Molas
Coalitioin of motorized users gets ready to go to court

A group of snowshoers enjoys a picture perfect day at Andrews Lake on Sunday. In March, a lawsuit pressing
for the return of motorized use on 200 acres around Andrews Lake will have its first day in federal
court./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Snowmobilers and skiers continue to be at odds over the popular winter recreation area around Molas Pass. However, some resolution could be reached starting next month. In mid-March, a lawsuit pressing for the return of motorized use on 200 acres around Andrews Lake will have its first day in federal court.

Early in the summer of 2001, the San Juan National Forest and San Juan Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management released a management plan for winter recreation around Molas Pass. The plan was the result of a public call to provide options for different user groups and clean up a situation that had become chaotic, according to Nancy Berry, recreation forester.

“We took it on because of the increase in winter recreation in that area and the increase in skiing, snowmobile and outfitter use,” she said. “It had just become a busy place and people were asking us to do something.”

During the environmental analysis and over the course of numerous scoping meetings, Berry said that the Forest Service heard from the full spectrum. “It was pretty hot on all sides of the coin,” she said, adding that the agency received roughly 800 written comments.

Things got even hotter when the plan was eventually released in June of 2001. Especially controversial was the designation of 200 acres around Andrews Lake, an area affectionately called the donut hole, as off-limits to snowmobiles and other motorized winter vehicles. The Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition (COHVCO), the Silverton Snowmobile Club and the Colorado Snowmobile Association promptly appealed the management plan a month after its release. Eventually, the Rocky Mountain regional forester upheld the decision and in response, the three groups jointly filed suit in February of 2002.

On March 19 of this year, the issue will return to the legal spotlight as the case begins to play itself out in court. At that time, Federal Judge Robert E. Blackburn will hear oral arguments for the lawsuit which asks that the Forest Service plan be declared unlawful.

“We’re the good guys in this,” said Corey Corbett, acting chairman of Off-Highway Coaltion. “We’re the guys trying to keep the public land open for the public.”

Corbett said that the nonmotorized designation amounts to a seizure of public property. He added that not only have snowmobilers been excluded from the 200-acre area but so have the majority of winter recreationists.

“Unfortunately, this action is shutting down a lot of the recreational use of that area,” he said. “Without grooming it’s very difficult for anyone to recreate at all.”

When asked whether skiers should have a place to themselves, Corbett replied that skiers have just as much right to use public land as snowmobilers but not more. And while a lawsuit is a strong approach to discussion, he said that none of the three groups want to be adversarial. Instead, Corbett said that he hopes that the legal action will revoke the decision in order to allow for a compromise acceptable to all parties.

Wayne Sabback, front, gets his motor running before his inaugural run on a snowmobile tour Sunday on Molas Pass./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“We eventually want to make an effort to work together and come up with a plan that works for everybody,” Corbett said. “Sometimes when an action is taken you also have to take action to stop it.”

If the lawsuit is successful, Corbett said he envisioned different users sitting down at the bargaining table. “There’s been compromises made all over the state where user groups have gotten together,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t happen there.”

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, takes a different view of the management plan. Rather than looking at the 200-acre closure as overly restrictive, Pearson said that he sees it as the bare minimum. He noted that motorized users have relatively unhindered access to the remaining 6,900 acres surrounding Molas Pass, and that the closure could have included the entire east side of Highway 550. With these factors in mind, the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance and Colorado Mountain Club have intervened in the case.

“We were concerned that the very modest restrictions that the Forest Service put on winter recreation were just a baby step toward making that a more desirable experience for cross-country skiers and snowshoers,” Pearson said. “We were pretty astonished that the motorized community would sue the Forest Service over a couple hundred acres.”

Pearson said that San Juan Citizens’ Alliance is involved in the case largely to keep an eye on the Forest Service and make sure the donut hole does not shrink or become compromised.

“We just want to make sure the Forest Service doesn’t backslide in their modest protection of that area,” Pearson said.

Perhaps the biggest irony of the lawsuit is that despite heated emotions on both sides, the management plan appears to be working. Berry said that the 200-acre area is surrounded by a perimeter of signs, and that the Forest Service monitors it one or two times a week.

“Once in a while, we’ve had a snowmobile buzz the signs and go in and out of the area,” she said. “But for the most part, it’s worked pretty well.”

Berry also said that the Forest Service is aware that a segment of the motorized community is still unhappy with the Andrews Lake closure but that the agency has not gotten much feedback from skiers and snowshoers.

“I really haven’t heard much about it outside the legal matter,” she said.

And the Forest Service will be hearing a lot more on the legal matter in coming months. “Obviously, the issue’s still not resolved,” Berry concluded. “We’ll see what happens.”






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