Road construction project raises ire of snowmobilers
GSPI News Editor
RIFLE ” Efforts to improve the Forest Service road up Little Box Canyon north of Rifle have hit a big bump ” at least from the perspective of snowmobilers.
Members of the Rifle Snowmobile Club are complaining to forest officials that drainage dips being installed in the steep route up to the Flat Tops have made it too narrow for their grooming equipment, and create a danger by reducing visibility.
Officials hope to address the concerns, though they caution that they may not be able to fully satisfy the snowmobilers.
“The good news is we know that we have the money to try to address some of the concerns that they had,” said Sue Froeschle, spokesperson for the White River National Forest.
The dips, called water bars, are designed to capture and divert water, and control runoff. Each one results in a rise and fall of several feet within about 50 feet of roadway. About 40 of them are being installed along the 4.5-mile road, which ascends up a steep valley several miles above the Rifle Fish Hatchery.
“The worst part of it is the safety factor,” said club vice president Lee Estes, as he steered his four-wheel-drive Chevy up the edge of one of the water bars, preparing to drop into it.
“When you go up, you’re just looking at the trees and sky,” he said.
He fears that collisions may result from the reduced line of sight created by the water bars.
He and fellow club members were disheartened to see the road being torn up, after they removed rocks and did other cleanup work during a work day in September.
“We had it all ready for grooming,” said Carleton Hoffmeister, the club’s president.
After the $72,000 water bar project began, however, snowmobilers discovered they wouldn’t be able to get their groomer through at all. The contract calls for the road to be 12 feet wide. The groomer is 16 feet wide.
Forest Service officials blamed an oversight on their part.
“That’s one of those things, it just didn’t click when we put the design together,” said Ray Langstaff, road manager on the WRNF.
Technically, noted Froeschle, the road is a Level II forest road ” basically a Jeep road ” that is required to be only 12 feet wide.
But she and other forest officials assured that there was no intention of keeping snowmobilers off the road.
Forest officials hope to get the road widened again, but said that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Langstaff said changing contracts takes time. And time may run out before the start of snowmobiling season.
That could create a major inconvenience for the club. It bases its groomer at the West Elk Creek trailhead up the Buford Road. It relies on the Little Box Canyon road to get the groomer down to its Huffman Gulch trailhead on Rifle Creek, so it can groom the parking area.
If the groomer can’t travel via Little Box Canyon, the only access to the trailhead would be via Coulter Mesa, a 25-mile detour in each direction.
While racing against winter to resolve the road-width issue, the Forest Service also is looking into whether it can change the grade on some of the dips to ease concerns about safety. But Langstaff fears reducing the rises and falls much would start to defeat the purpose of the water bars.
“It’s a concern, I won’t deny that,” he said of the visibility issue. “But by the same token these are mountains roads. People should be driving them at 5, 10, 15 miles per hour, not 30 miles per hour.”
That may be, but snowmobilers fear accidents will occur.
Snowmobilers also question the whole need for the water bars. The road has a solid rock base and has served its purpose well as a historical access route from Rifle to the Flat Tops, said snowmobile club member Bob Hoffmeister, Carleton’s brother.
The Hoffmeister family was once in the grocery business in Rifle, and he remembers when his dad drove a two-wheel-drive vehicle to trade groceries for logs at a sawmill that operated up the road.
“It just blows your mind when you see them destroy a road like this,” Bob Hoffmeister said.
But Langstaff has memories of the road as well ” it was his family that opened the sawmill, in 1908, he said.
“So I’m intimately acquainted with that road. The road has gone from a road that, when I was a little kid, you could drive in a sedan and not feel bad about, to a real rocky road,” he said.
Hunting traffic beats up the road in the fall, and snowmelt washes dirt away in the spring, said Langstaff. He said the only way to stop the continuing erosion was to put in some drainage controls.
Installing culverts was an option, but that would also have required regular road maintenance to keep a crown on the road so water drains off, Langstaff said.
Installing water bars will protect the road and reduce the sediment getting into Rifle Creek where it harms fish, the Forest Service says.
But Rifle snowmobilers who inspected the torn-up road last week had a hard time seeing how it was going to improve things.
“There’s just no common sense to it,” Carleton Hoffmeister said as he kicked up dust walking down into one of the water bars.
“None at all,” Estes agreed.
Rifle District Ranger Dave Silvieus said he appreciated the snowmobilers’ comments.
“I’m glad they raised those concerns,” he said. “I hope we can do some things that make it safer. We’re probably not going to completely make it safe and address our watershed needs at the same time, but it should be somewhat better.”
He defended the purpose of the project, however.
“You have to do something to it. You can’t just let it erode,” he said.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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