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It’s 90 degrees – time to consider winter recreation trails

Dennis Webb

As forest fires rage in the summer heat, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and dogsledders in the Rifle area are thinking snow.

A group of these recreationists, the Multi Users Club, hopes to create a trail system north of Rifle.

The move would create a safer and quieter alternative to using the snowmobile trails up County Road 245, the New Castle to Buford Road.

But it’s far from a reflection of animosity toward snowmobilers.

In fact, many of the same people involved in the trail effort also belong to the Rifle Snowmobile Club. At a time when hard feelings exist between some motorized and nonmotorized winter recreationists, the club entertained the idea of going beyond being merely a snowmobile club to represent the interests of these other recreationists.

Though the club eventually decided against such an expansion, it still will support the efforts of the nonmotorized recreationist group, said Lanny Grant, a member of the snowmobile club.

“It will be a separate group, but the two will be working together,” he said.

Grant said the nonmotorized group had hoped to avoid going through a Forest Service environmental review process by working under the auspices of the snowmobile club, but that process turned out to be unavoidable.

“As it ended up, it would not have saved them much time or done much of anything to try to incorporate into the snowmobile club.”

Grant said the 100-member snowmobile club also felt the club would have become too big and cumbersome if it took on nonsnowmobile issues and tasks. But that’s no reflection of its feelings toward the new trails project.

“We’re supportive of what they’re doing,” he said.

Kay Robinson, who belongs to the snowmobile club and also is helping form the Multi Users Club, said the nonmotorized recreationists believed it would have been simpler to work under the umbrella of the existing club. But she understands its decision to continue with its longtime focus.

Robinson’s son is a groomer for the snowmobile club, and she was its safari chairman last year, planning trips and activities. But she prefers skiing over snowmobiling for herself, she said.

“I really have been a cross-country skier most of my life, and I’m not a mechanic, so skis work easier for me. And they’re not as heavy as snowmobiles if you get stuck,” she said.

“It’s a different sport, truthfully, but we start out at the same place,” she said.

20-mile system envisioned

Up C.R. 245, that place is the West Elk Trailhead. Robinson envisions marking and grooming about 20 miles of trails to the south and east of the trailhead, in an area little used by snowmobiles.

Currently, many of the skiers, snowshoers and dogsledders travel the ridgetop snowmobile trail heading about five miles to Triangle Park. Because it’s also the main snowmobile trail to other Flat Tops destinations, it’s heavily used.

“We’re legally allowed to go on that trail, but it isn’t safe,” said Robinson. “On Saturdays and Sundays it isn’t any fun, and if you want to go with your dog it’s really suicidal.”

Dogsledders run into more of a problem because their animals rely on voice commands, which can be hard to hear among the din of snowmobiles, she said.

“If the dogs get confused and get onto a brand new snowmobile path, well, they’ll sink. It’s kind of like a wreck.”

Grant said one goal of the snowmobile club is to teach how to share the trail in a respectful, courteous manner. One problem is that people who don’t commonly use the trails don’t follow rules such as staying to the right. While it’s not usually a problem, occasionally skiers who are skiing abreast or dogsled teams that are on the wrong side of the trail create a big risk of a wreck, he said.

No bad accidents have occurred, but there have been some close calls, he said. In such cases, club members often try to get everyone stopped and talk to people about trail safety.

Exclusionary trails

disdained

The new trail system wouldn’t be nonmotorized – in fact, Robinson plans to use a snowmobile to pack it down – but she said it would go through areas most snowmobilers don’t go, and would be full of sharp turns.

“Most snowmobilers wouldn’t like our little Mickey Mouse trails because skiers wouldn’t cover much country the way snowmobilers would. … I can’t imagine anyone really wanting to snowmobile this.”

At the same time, said Grant, one goal both clubs share is to not get into a situation of having the Forest Service designate some areas as open to snowmobiles only, and other areas for nonmotorized uses only.

“We’ve seen it in other areas and it doesn’t work that well,” he said of designated areas, such as ones established at Vail Pass. It can be hard to enforce exclusionary designations, he said.

“We wanted to keep it open to everybody and work together,” Grant said. “I think both sides support each other and realize that we can work together.”

Robinson said most snowmobilers who use the West Elk trailhead are cooperative and respectful toward nonmotorized users on the trails.

“Most of them slow up and some of them stop and visit but there are a few that are just flying around the curves and are not able to stay on their own side of the road.”

While the noise and fumes of snowmobiles also bothers some nonmotorized users, Robinson believes relations between the two groups in general aren’t as bad as the media depicts.

Some members of the Rifle Snowmobile Club don’t even own snowmobiles, said Grant.

“They appreciate the groomed trails,” he said.

Robinson said nonmotorized users join snowmobilers in trail cleanups and other projects.

The two clubs also plan to apply jointly for a $25,000 state grant for a permanent rest room at the trailhead.

Robinson said she doesn’t think the new club would need a big budget to create its trail system. Packing down and marking the system would be the main costs.

The marking is a crucial part of the project, “so no one gets lost, so we can keep the trails usable at all times, even after a big snow or big wind,” she said.

The club has applied to the Forest Service for permission to create the marked trails. Robinson, who has lived in the Buford Road area for 32 years, recently opened the High Country Cabin, which is near the trailhead. She said her guests have lost their way due to a lack of a marked trail system.

Join the clubs

The new club consists of about 15 people now, but Robinson hopes to expand it greatly by tapping into the 100 Club and Wednesday Wanderer recreational groups, which both ski and snowshoe in the area.

Meanwhile, the Rifle Snowmobile Club is always looking for more members to support the work it does.

The club grooms and maintains about 90 miles of trails that connect to other trail systems maintained by clubs in Glenwood Springs and Meeker. It also plows and maintains parking lots and trailheads, and provides rest rooms.

“All of that work is done by volunteers from the club,” Grant said.

The club’s budget is $16,000 per year, which goes toward such things as fuel and upkeep of equipment.

“It never is enough to do what we need to do throughout the winter,” he said.

The club’s funds come in part from a membership fee of $25 per family per year. It also obtains money from the state parks budget, which gets revenues from the $15 annual registration fees paid by snowmobilers.

Grants enabled the club to buy a $60,000 groomer.

The Colorado Snowmobile Association also assists in club trail efforts.

Meanwhile, said Grant, the trails remain available for all, even if they don’t join the club. The West Elk Trailhead is getting more use from all user groups, he said.

Noting how much crossover there is between snowmobilers and other winter recreationists, Grant doesn’t like to label forest users as motorized and nonmotorized.

“Everybody’s in this together and … we’ve got to share this forest and being out there no matter how we choose to enjoy it,” he said.


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