Users still mixed over Molas Pass
Skiers petition for expanded nonmotorized area
Snowmobilers cruise the groomed track on Molas Pass last winter. Despite a Forest Service plan that sets aside 200 acres for nonmotorized use, there are still conflicts between snowmobilers, who are calling for unlimited access to public lands on the pass, and skiers, who would like more solitude./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

J ust weeks after first tracks, skiers and snowmobilers continue to be at odds over the popular winter recreation area around Molas Pass. This week, a judge overturned a lawsuit from motorized users that presses for the return of snowmobile access on 200 acres around Andrews Lake. At the same time, a citizens' petition has surfaced and is pushing in the opposite direction. It calls for the Forest Service to enhance the skiing and snowshoeing experience on Molas Pass and expand the 200 acres designated as nonmotorized, an area affectionately called the so-called "donut hole."

The San Juan National Forest first attempted to resolve these differences early in the summer of 2001. At that time, a management plan for winter recreation around Molas Pass was released. According to Recreation Forester Nancy Berry, use of the area had grown dramatically and the public had asked the agency to do something. From the get-go, it was apparent that recreation at Molas Pass would be a hot issue. Berry noted that during analysis, the Forest Service received upwards of 800 written comments.

Things got even hotter when the plan was eventually released in June of 2001. The designation of 200 acres around Andrews Lake, the so-called "donut hole," as off-limits to snowmobiles proved especially contentious.

The Silverton Snowmobile Club, the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition (COHVCO) and the Colorado Snowmobile Association promptly appealed the management plan a month after its release.

"Our feeling is that we don't mind giving up that area around Andrews," said Laura Alsup, of the Silverton Snowmobile Club. "What we really object to is not being able to mark and groom that area south of Andrews Lake toward Lime Creek. We're effectively cut-off from all of that."

Eventually, the Rocky Mountain regional forester rejected the appeal, and in response, the three groups jointly filed suit in February of 2002. On March 19 of this year, Federal Judge Robert E. Blackburn heard oral arguments for the lawsuit, which charges that the "donut hole" is effectively a seizure of public property.

"We're the good guys in this," said Corey Corbett, vice-chairman of the Off-Highway Coalition. "We're the guys trying to keep the public land open for the public."

Blackburn took a different view of the "good guys" when he re-affirmed the decision to limit motorized recreation in the "donut hole" this week. His ruling upheld the Forest Service plan but also found that the agency had failed to amend its Forest Plan to reflect the closure. However, he characterized it as a "harmless error," which did not prejudice the case.

Meanwhile, a group of nonmotorized users has started a push to expand the "donut hole." Rather than looking at the 200-acre closure as overly restrictive, they see it as a bare minimum, noting that nearly 7,000 surrounding acres are wide open to motorized use.

Durango resident Joe Griffith shares this feeling and recently took action. Griffith has drafted a petition and started circulating it in an effort to give a louder voice to skiers and snowshoers. 4

"I realized that one of the snowmobilers' arguments to the Forest Service is that 'we've been working directly with you for all these years and skiers have been saying nothing,'" Griffith said.

At the same time, Griffith argued that nonmotorized users should be speaking up, pointing to a situation at Molas Pass that could be much better.

"The present area is too small," he said. "There's kind of an artificial boundary set up with small signs and those are ignored regularly. I've even found snowmobile tracks inside the wilderness area boundary on a regular basis."

Griffith added, "There are a lot of times you go up there and the snow machines have beaten you to the snow, and that's in places where they're not supposed to be. The truth is that we don't really have an area that's off limits to snowmobiles."

Griffith also suggested that Durango is in need of a high-altitude Nordic skiing area. He said that shorter winters have harmed cross-country skiing at places like the Purgatory Nordic Center and Vallecito.

"With increasingly warm winters, conditions deteriorate rapidly at places like the Nordic Center," Griffith said. "We really do need a high altitude area that is dedicated for cross-country skiing."

In light of these factors, the petition encourages the Forest Service to revisit the management plan and expand the "donut-hole" and create more obvious boundaries.

"While skiing around the area, I realized what a dramatic drainage Molas Creek is," Griffith said. "It seems like a much better boundary and it would give a better cushion between the snowmobilers and the wilderness boundary."

This week, six people hit the streets with the petition and started collecting signatures to present to the Forest Service. Berry has taken a look at the language of the petition and said that it actually resembles one of the alternatives that was not chosen during the formation of the plan.

"We did have an alternative like this that would have gone from Molas Pass, south to Lime Creek, east to the wilderness boundary and west to the highway," she said.

In light of this, she commented that the petition does not seem to be making unreasonable demands. "The petition isn't really alarming to me," she said. "These are probably points that we could look at."

However, Berry added that the petition is addressed to Columbine District Ranger Pauline Ellis and the decision would be hers to make. With the recent resolution of the lawsuit, Ellis indicated that the Forest Service is interested in sitting down with all parties and making things work at Molas Pass.

"We look forward to working with all the different parties who feel ownership in Molas Pass," Ellis concluded. "The Molas Pass Winter Recreation Plan lays out some helpful groundwork, but there are still issues to be addressed, because recreational use has escalated over the past three years."





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