Road closure south of Rifle causes confusion
January 10, 2016
RIFLE — Rather than hit the slopes at upvalley resorts, some residents prefer to grab their skis or snowshoes and head south from town to the White River National Forest — an area referred to as a "hidden gem."
Those same backcountry recreationists received a surprise in early December when they discovered a locked gate blocking access to U.S. Forest Service Road 824. The road, which starts at the end of County Road 317 in unincorporated Garfield County south of Rifle, leads to the Beaver Creek Trailhead and it is commonly referred to as Beaver Creek Road.
The discovery was concerning for some of those recreationists, who quickly reached out to The Citizen Telegram.
"I wanted to let you know that I am disappointed about the recent road closure to access the Beaver Creek trails in south Rifle," wrote Sara Brainard, a Beaver Creek Trail user. "If it is public access then why is the gate locked?"
The answer, according to the Forest Service, lies in the 2011 White River National Forest Travel Management Plan — a document governing travel throughout the nearly 2.5 million acres of land.
The road historically was open throughout the year, according to those who recreate in the area. While the travel management plan did not alter summer use of the road, it did implement a seasonal winter closure to motorized access. Permits for motorized access are granted through a special authorization process to neighboring landowners during winter. Most of the 1.9-mile Forest Service road is surrounded by private property.
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The seasonal closure was supposed to be implemented in 2014-15, said Bill Kight, public affairs officer with the White River forest. However, with limited resources and staff and the large number of roads and trails for which the office is responsible, the road wasn't closed last winter, according to Kight.
The closure is now in effect for the winter, which the Forest Service defines as Nov. 23 to May 20, according to travel management documents. Those documents state various reasons for seasonal closures of some roads, as well as decommissioning of others.
Specifically, a 2002 land management document defines the Beaver Creek area as a deer and elk winter range, which means that the area must be "managed to provide adequate amounts of quality forage, cover and solitude" for the animals, according to Karla Mobley, a civil engineering technician with the U.S. Forest Service.
Additional standards and guidelines for managing winter ranges call for restricting over-the-snow vehicle use — such as a snowmobile — to designated routes or areas, and restricting recreation activities that would disturb deer and elk, Mobley said.
Much of that initial confusion, according to those who recreate in the area, was due to the lack of signage when the gate was first closed. That led some to wonder if the road was permanently closed to all forms of traffic.
"Communication could have been better," said Dana Wood, a Rifle resident and city councilor who recreates in the area.
Others said there was no sign when they first discovered the gate. Since then, a sign has been posted indicating that the road is closed to motorized access for the winter. The sign also includes a phone number for people to call for more information.
Part of the problem, said Steven Fuller, a local teacher who also recreates in the area, is that the gate is closed but the road is plowed.
The Forest Service does not plow the road. Instead it leaves that to the permit holders who have authorized access. Years ago, according to Fuller, the road was not plowed, and people could ski down the road to the public land. More recently private landowners started plowing the roads, which allowed the public to drive to the trailhead.
The current combination of the locked gate and plowed road translates to a 1.5-mile trudge carrying skis, Fuller said.
He admits the issue is a "first-world problem," and like others he does not fault the Forest Service. Further, the matter won't stop him from recreating in the area, even if it does take some of the fun out of it.
"It's a hitch in my giddyap, as Rifle folks like to say," Fuller said.