Skiers prevail in Molas Pass fight

The fight for Molas Pass has ended. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a Forest Service decision to ban snowmobiling from a small area near the pass. The Silverton Snowmobile Club, one of the groups that initiated the lawsuit, has indicated that it will not press the fight any further.

The San Juan National Forest first attempted to resolve differences between Molas Pass  skiers and snowmobilers in 2001. A winter recreation management plan for the area was released, and 200 acres around Andrews Lake, the so-called “donut hole,” were designated as off-limits to snowmobiles. The Silverton Snowmobile Club, the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition and the Colorado Snowmobile Association promptly appealed the management plan. Eventually, the Rocky Mountain regional forester rejected the appeal, and in response, the three groups jointly filed suit early in 2002. A district ruled in the Forest Service’s favor late in 2004, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said last Thursday that ruling was correct.

Laura Alsup, secretary and treasurer of the Silverton Snowmobile Club, said the group is disappointed in the ruling. “They had a predetermined outcome, and it was skewed against snowmobilers since the get-go,” she said. “We felt that we had to go for it and bring some sense to the whole process.”

Alsup added that the main issue has never been the “donut hole” itself. However, its creation prevents the club from grooming south of Andrews Lake and cuts snowmobilers off from a large area.

“What it comes down to is that the Forest Service said we couldn’t mark and groom the area that goes behind Andrews Lake and accesses what’s called the pipeline,” she said. “Then we’d go down East Lime Creek, cross the highway and come back up to Molas. The 200 acres has never been a big problem.”

In addition, the club is prohibited from grooming at night because of wildlife issues. Alsup argued that the prohibition is unfair.

“Of 31 snowmobile clubs in the state, we’re the only one that can’t groom at night because of the lynx,” she said. “I’m sure none of the ski areas would be too thrilled if the Forest Service said, ‘OK, no more grooming at night.’”

In spite of continued grievances, Alsup said that the legal fight is most likely over.

“I believe we’re done,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of money and put a lot of effort into it. But when we met with our attorney in November, he indicated that the case probably couldn’t go any further.”

On the other side of the fight, the Forest Service is pleased with the recent decision. Dave Baker, San Juan Public Lands recreation program leader, countered that the original management plan was a good one, and last Thursday’s ruling confirms that.

“The Columbine District staff put a lot of time and effort working with the different recreation groups in the original Molas Pass Winter Recreation Management Plan of 2001 and came up with a good plan, which this decision upheld,” he said.

In spite of the victory, Baker added that the Forest Service will continue to try to address the concerns of the snowmobile community, saying, “Balancing winter recreational uses is still a big concern. We’ll continue to address it in a public forum with our revisions of the BLM and national forest plans and will also visit the issue more specifically soon in travel management planning.”

For her part, Alsup remains skeptical. “We meet with the Forest Service, I don’t know how often,” she said. “Nothing ever changes. If there are no other options, we’ll have another meeting. But the Forest Service already knows what we’re looking for.”


Affordable housing coalition forms

A diverse group is banding together with the goal of creating affordable and attainable housing. On Jan. 9, representatives from nonprofit housing entities, Durango School District 9-R, the City of Durango, Fort Lewis College, the Regional Housing Authority, the Home Builders Association and the Three Springs Development team, all set their eyes on creating affordably priced housing in La Plata County.  

The talk centered on how to achieve a 25 percent city requirement, combining affordable and attainable housing in the Three Springs Development in Grandview area.

Connie Matthews Imig, executive director of Habitat for Humanity, explained that the meeting touched on several core issues. The Three Springs developers noted that they will not make money on affordable/attainable housing and need to recoup their costs on the remainder of the project. Another issue that came to the fore was that the city, college and school district all want to foster affordable and attainable housing for their workforces. Lastly, the nonprofit housing entities want to be able to build houses that people both below and above the median income range can purchase. Another meeting was set, and all the parties left with a sense of positive momentum.

“Affordable housing is a real hot button but the only way to assure it will happen is to provide a collaborative atmosphere between all parties and foster open communication,” Imig said. “We started this process with the first meeting.”

Imig added that she is hopeful that the coalition can help address the single biggest block to affordable housing – the price of land.

“Land is expensive,” she said. “The nonprofits groups can build less expensively and yet still turn out a quality product using volunteers and donated materials, but land has to be available and cost effective. Bringing the developers and the city into the process may allow creative, out-of-the-box thinking that can help with the land costs.” 


Rural crime wave hits mesa

Last week, a wave of crime hit rural La Plata County. Sixteen vehicles were broken into on the night of Jan. 11 on Florida Mesa, 10 miles south of Durango. Early on Jan. 13, La Plata County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested four people believed to be connected to the crime.

The break-ins took place at various residences on the mesa. Among items taken from two unlocked vehicles were three handguns, including a Taurus .38 semi-automatic pistol, a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol, and a Smith & Wesson revolver. Some items and evidence from the thefts were recovered at Pastorius Reservoir. Then two suspects turned up early on the morning of Jan. 13.

Deputy Lance Chisum was patrolling the area of Pastorius after 3 a.m. when he contacted two men, Chad Kesselhuth and Ted Dobson, both 19 years old. The two gave Chisum permission to search the vehicle, and items taken in the Wednesday break-ins were found. 

Subsequent investigation led deputies to a room at the Spanish Trails Motel in Durango.  There, they recovered additional stolen property and took two juveniles into custody, a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, who were also believed to be involved in the thefts. 

Kesselhuth and Dobson were booked into La Plata County Detention Center with bonds of $10,000 each. The two juveniles were placed in the custody of their parents. All four may face 17 felony counts for Burglary and First Degree Criminal Trespass.

Dan Bender, public information officer for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said that the incident is a wake-up call. “There is a tendency for those of us who live in rural areas to feel safer and less prone to becoming victims of crime,” he said. “But, the fact that all 16 of these vehicles were on private property and left unlocked should encourage us to be more vigilant in securing our homes, out buildings and vehicles.”


Reconstruction planned for area trail

Long awaited maintenance could be coming to a popular area trail. The San Juan National Forest is seeking public input on a proposal to reconstruct 5 of 7 miles of the City Reservoir Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness northeast of Durango. Because the trail has not seen heavy maintenance in more than two decades, some portions have eroded, causing multiple parallel trails to form as hikers and horseback riders detour around problem areas.

Maintenance would include constructing drainage structures to keep water off the trail to prevent soil erosion. The proposal also calls for 300 feet of new trail to be constructed to reroute this portion to a more sustainable location. In areas where duplicate trails have been created, one route would be selected for reconstruction, while the others would be rehabilitated to a natural state. Because this trail is in the Weminuche Wilderness, the work will be done with hand tools. No chainsaws or motorized equipment will be allowed.

Comments on the project will be accepted through Feb. 17. For more information, call 375-3304.

– compiled by Will Sands


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