Snowmobilers, skiers at odds
Three separate groups petition for quiet winter spaces

Snowmobilers pass each other on a busy day last year near Molas Lake. Increased use of the area, combined with a low-snow year, has led to mounting tensions between cross country skiers and snowmobilers. Three separate skier groups are petitioning the U.S. Forest Service to designate more areas in the Red Mountain-Molas Pass areas as nonmotorized./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Will Sands

The sound, smell and sight of snowmobiles are drawing strong reactions in the San Juan Mountains. Amid growing numbers of machines and riders, three separate groups have banded together in the name of quiet winter spaces. Each has presented a petition to the Forest Service, calling for large areas of the San Juans to be designated off limits to motors in the winter. In response, the agency is searching for answers to what could be one of its most challenging dilemmas.

Snowmobiling is expected to hit a new high in 2006, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. The group estimates that more than 2.6 million snowmobile registrations will be filed in North America this winter. Last year, the industry group recorded more than $1 billion in sales of snowmobile accessories alone, up 15 percent from 2004. Blame it on the baby boom or a changing recreation dynamic, but snowmobiling is rapidly spreading throughout America and the San Juan Mountains.

“I don’t know if the number of users has gone up or the awareness of those users has, but we hear more and more concerns about snowmobiling,” said Dave Baker, recreation/wilderness program lead for the San Juan Public Lands Center.

Baker added that the combination of this year’s limited winter and burlier, bigger and faster snowmachines has led to numerous user conflicts. “Like with the drought cycle of 2002, everyone has been concentrated into the same areas this year, and everyone notices everyone else. Plus, technology has improved, and snowmobiles are getting into places they didn’t used to. So that is all making it a more noticeable issue.”

The conflict has also manifested itself in several distinct ways during the last year. Three individual groups on all sides of the San Juans have petitioned the Forest Service to sanction certain areas as off-limits to snowmobiles. One of these efforts was nearly 1,000 signatures strong and called on the Forest Service to enhance the skiing and snowshoeing experience on Molas Pass. It asked that the current 200 acres at Andrews Lake now designated as nonmotorized, an area affectionately called “the donut hole,” be substantially expanded. Durango resident Joe Griffith initiated the petition in hopes of gaining ground for winter users in search of solitude.

“We’re not saying that snowmobiles should not have a place on this earth,” Griffith explained. “But mixing skiers and snowmobiles is hazardous. These guys move at extremely high speeds, and they eat up the last, best powder snow.”

Unlike many other motorized users, Griffith has felt an unwillingness to compromise from the snowmobiling community, saying, “With the snowmobiles, it’s a different story. They’re adamant about wanting access to everything and say we should share it all.”

With this in mind, Griffith said that distinct lines are in order in the San Juans. Expanding the donut hole to accommodate abundant use by skiers and provide a sanctuary from motors would represent a good start, according to Griffith’s petition.

“It’s clear that we need a cross-country area that’s dedicated exclusively to skiing and quiet uses,” he said. “The area south of Molas Pass is the last best place.”

On the other side of Red Mountain Pass, an independent petition with comparable goals has been handed to the Uncompahgre National Forest. The Ouray Trail Group, an organization advocating for summer and winter trail users, kicked off the effort in hopes of creating a wide corridor free of snow machines.

Karen Risch, the group’s president, explained, “A short letter and petition basically said that we want the Forest Service to designate the entire area from Ironton Park to Red Mountain Pass to the alpine ridges on either side off limits to snowmobiles.”

The request then went further. “We also asked them to coordinate with the San Juan National Forest planners to ensure that the alpine area encompassing the south side of Red Mountain Pass is protected in a similar manner,” Risch added.

The group’s concerns include biological impacts to wildlife, particularly lynx, and Ironton Park’s rare iron fen as well as scientific damage to a national snow research site near Red Mountain Pass. Headlining the issues, however, is the all-too-familiar conflict between quiet and motorized users.

“It’s very hard for the two groups to coexist when they’re in the backcountry together,” Risch explained. “There are very few areas where the skiers can go. The snowmobilers have Molas Pass, Lizard Head, Engineer Pass Road and several other areas in the San Juan Mountains alone. They have a huge amount of country.”

This season has presented a particular problem for many high-elevation users, according to Risch. “Backcountry skiers are now encountering snowmobiles high-pointing in the high basins around Red Mountain, and they’re afraid for their lives,” she said. “That’s already a tender snowpack.”

Like Griffith and the Silverton Mountain School, another hiking and skiing advocate that has forwarded a third petition, the Ouray Trail Group would like to see snowmobiling physically separated from skiing.

“There are two reasons: enjoyment and safety,” Risch said. “To have machines zooming along the same track with skiers just doesn’t make sense. Plus, tensions are building to dangerous levels between users. I think separate routes and separate areas need to be designated.”

The Forest Service is currently considering emotions on both sides of the snowmobiling issue. Both the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests are in the process of revising their forest plans and devoting ample time and energy to the winter recreation picture. However, no new rules have been written, and areas have yet to be designated as off-limits to snowmobiles or skiers. The San Juan National Forest expects a draft of the new plan sometime in 2006 and final approval in 2007.

“We’re in the middle of revising this land management plan and asking ourselves what are the appropriate recreation niches,” Baker said. “Snowmobiling is certainly one, and solitude is another.”

The agency would prefer if both groups could find a way to co-habitate in the San Juans, according to Baker. However, he and others are seeing that might not be possible.

“Multiple use is always our preferred management,” he said. “But figuring out when it will work and when segregation is necessary can be difficult. I’d rather work collaboratively, but that may not happen in some cases. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Richard Speegle, Recreation Project Leader for the San Juan National Forest, added, “We’ve heard from both sides on what they’d like to see in the future. I think there may be some changes up there. But nobody’s got any answers yet.”

In the meantime, the Forest Service is putting a few band-aids on the problem. The agency has added more patrols in the Molas and Red Mountain Pass areas to ensure that people are playing by the current rules. Plus, the Forest Service is putting more manpower into up-front education to prevent user conflicts before they happen.

Until a solution is found, Speegle urged people to remember that the problem is two-sided. “Sure, there’s an increase in the number of snowmobiles,” he said. “But I’m certainly seeing no decrease in the number of skiers. It’s just going to be something that we’re all going to have to work at.”