The perfect motorized mix
Forest Service searches for answers to snowmobile dilemma

SideStory: Big plans for Big Molas

Members of the Silverton Snowmobile Club depart from Big Molas Lake for a group ride Saturday. The Forest Service is currently working to relax tensions between motorized and quiet users at Molas Pass and throughout the San Juan National Forest./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Long popular among skiers and snowmobiles, the Molas Pass area has staged everything from bitter lawsuits to threats from shotguns. However, the Forest Service is hoping to end tensions between motorized and quiet users at Molas and throughout the San Juan National Forest. The agency is in the midst of a long-term planning effort and expects big changes in the motorized picture.

The conflict between skiers and snowmobiles has heated up in recent years. In part, an explosion in snowmobiling is responsible. More than 2.6 million snowmobile registrations were filed in North America this winter, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, and bigger and burlier machines are venturing further into the backcountry throughout the San Juan Mountains.

Over the last year, three separate 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. At the same time, groups like the Silverton Snowmobile Club counter that motorized users are being treated unfairly and pushed into a corner.

In response, the San Juan National Forest is trying to take a broad view of over-the-snow travel in the San Juan Mountains. The agency hopes to address the needs of both quiet and motorized recreation and is optimistic that each will leave the table with something to show for the effort.

While Molas Pass, along with many of the other highway passes in the San

Juans, stages many of the visible conflicts between skiers and snowmobiles, the Forest Service is revising its travel management policies on all 1.9 million acres of the San Juan National Forest. In addition, policies on 800,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land are also being revisited.

“We’re looking at travel management throughout the whole planning area,” explained

Dave Baker, San Juan Public Lands recreation program leader. “We’re hoping to make some sweeping decisions on which areas should be closed to motorized use and which should be open.”

Baker added that the agencies are essentially starting over with a blank slate. The main criteria for success of the planning effort is that users’ needs are met.

“Everything’s on the table because we’re revising the plan,” Baker commented. “It’s all in spin. But we’re trying to be consistent and meet the needs of each user group.”

Jeramiah Paylor returns to the parking lot at Molas Pass after a day earning his turns in the backcountry./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

Meeting the needs of different types of recreation does not mean that every group will get exactly what it wants, Baker stressed. He said that the process is going forward in a spirit of collaboration, and that he expects users to be willing to give things up as well as make push for gains, saying, “Collaboration doesn’t mean everyone gets exactly what they want.”

Based on early feedback, several users are confident that the collaborative effort will pay off. Recently, Jon Krueger and Todd Brodbeck took over El Diablo Cat Skiing operation at Molas Pass and started Ice Pirates Snowmobile Tours. Krueger said he is eager to see some changes in the management of the Molas Pass area and hopes the Forest Service can allocate more space to accommodate different forms of recreation.

“The Forest Service is doing the right thing,” he said. “Every user up here needs more space, and every one needs to give a little bit. There needs to be compromise.”

Krueger noted that he and Brodbeck are eager to see a more peaceful situation on Molas and other places in the San Juans where motorized tensions have flared up.

“Let’s resolve the conflicts,” he said. “They call it the sandbox up here for obvious reasons. The kids are starting to throw sand at each other. The sandbox needs to be bigger.”

Durango resident Joe Griffith could be characterized as a player in the sandbox. He initiated the petition calling for the Forest Service to designate a bigger piece of the Molas Pass area as nonmotorized. Like Krueger, Griffith has high hopes for the Forest Service planning effort and is eager to collaborate.

“I think the success of the effort will all depend on some public meetings happening and getting us all in the room to talk about these things,” he said. “The important piece is for the skiers, snowshoers and quiet users to show up and state their needs.”

And Griffith said that he is optimistic that the Forest Service will generate a good solution for Molas Pass and the entire San Juan National Forest.

“It’s not like anyone is really getting squeezed,” he said. “I think everyone will wind up with plenty of area to play with.”

On the flip side, the snowmobiling community remains skeptical. Although she could not be reached for this story, Laura Alsup, secretary and treasurer for the Silverton Snowmobile Club, offered comments about the planning effort in late January.

“We meet with the Forest Service, I don’t know how often,” she said at the time. “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.”

Regardless, the agency is hopeful that all users, whether they are motorized or human powered, will find a way to get along in the San Juans. The San Juan National Forest expects to release of a draft of the new plan sometime in 2006. In the meantime, the agency will present some broad brushstrokes to the public in April.

“We want to present alternatives and go to the public in April,” Baker said in closing. “We want to know up front if we’re on track or missing the boat.”



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