Slate River Valley off the table
By Mark Reaman
The Crested Butte Town Council jumped on the winter fat bike train and will write a letter of support to the Forest Service asking the agency to approve the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA) permit application to allow for fat bike grooming on U.S. Forest Service lands near Crested Butte.
The 37 miles of proposed grooming would be primarily in the Brush Creek, Cement Creek and Gothic valley drainages, along with Snodgrass Mountain.
At the urging of various entities, including the Forest Service, CBMBA pulled its initial request to do some grooming in the Slate River Valley because of crowding concerns, particularly at the trailhead.
“We want to create singletrack and new loops and hold on to the momentum that was started last year with the Fat Bike World Championships held here,” CBMBA executive director Dave Ochs told the council at the October 3 meeting. “We are leading other resorts with this growing sport. Fat Biking is ours to lose. People like [to do] more than skiing. They like winter adventures. We are a bike culture community. Let’s make this a great winter amenity.”
Ochs said CBMBA would groom the trails, and it would be available to essentially everyone, including Nordic skiers, walkers, snowshoers, and people walking dogs.
In response to a question from mayor Glenn Michel, Ochs said the CBMBA proposal to the Forest Service fits within the parameters used by the Forest Service for guiding winter travel and use within the nearby drainages.
Using a template initiated by Al Smith up Cement Creek to his cabin, the grooming would be signed to explain how various users can politely utilize the groomed trail.
“CBMBA doesn’t charge for trail use so I will be looking for donations and asking for a grant from the town in the upcoming cycle,” said Ochs.
“Will more users impact trailheads and congestion?” asked Michel. “What about signage and bathrooms?”
“That is what we would use part of the grant money for,” said Ochs.
While it is no secret there has been some tension between Crested Butte Nordic and the fat biking community over some trail use, particularly on trails that cross private property with limited easements, Ochs said the Nordic community has been helpful in the past with trail issues, especially during races.
“But that’s why we are asking the Forest Service to allow us to groom some other places away from easements held by people who don’t like fat bikes. We are hoping for Nordic Center collaboration,” said Ochs.
“This seems to be nibbling at the Gang of Nine plan,” noted councilmember Jim Schmidt, referring to the local name for the Forest Service committee that formulated a plan for winter recreation in the area’s national forests. “Does it make sense to open it all up again?”
“Yes,” responded Ochs. “Fat biking was not even around in the 1990s when the Gang of Nine reached their conclusions. But the Forest Service has made it clear they are understaffed and won’t look at the Winter Travel Management Plan for a few years. We feel this is an opportunity to get ahead of it. When they do look at the comprehensive plan they can see if this worked on the ground.”
At the meeting, several members of the public commented on the CBMBA permit application.
Ali Fuchs of Big Al’s Bikes said she has seen the sport grow exponentially in the last three winters. “I’ve doubled my rentals in the last three years,” she said. “I have probably 20 fat bikes now and sometimes they are all rented at the same time. It is amazing. It has become another amenity offered in the town. The sport will continue to grow and it is so much in line with Crested Butte.”
CBMBA president and local lodge owner Matt Whiting said, “It is critical for our community to diversify our economy. This is a low-impact, positive experience for people.”
CBMBA stalwart Doug Bradbury said when the sport began popping up, people, including Forest Service officials, starting looking to CBMBA as a point organization for fat biking. “Frankly, we think this grooming will be great but we have no idea how we will pay for it,” he said. “We are going out on a limb to do this, but we think it will work.”
Nordic skier Maureen Hall said she is not opposed to fat biking. “I think they have a right to be in the backcountry. However, in your letter to the Forest Service I urge you to ask them to address the Winter Travel Management Plan as soon as possible,” Hall told the council. “Asking the Forest Service to approve grooming more drainages and adding more users without looking at the big picture is something to think about. There is a lot of conflict out there and it can be a mess. Things will get worse unless the Forest Service addresses a comprehensive Winter Travel Management Plan.”
Bike journalist Jason Sumner told the council that there is no real “marquee place for fat biking, especially in the Rockies. This is a great opportunity for Crested Butte. As people say, ‘When the skiing sucks, the fat biking is great.’ It is something to embrace.”
Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce director Eliza Cress said the Fat Bike World Championships event was a huge hit for the community. “It saw more media than the resort did all winter. The chamber wants to continue to grow the event. And if we want to get those people back outside of the race, we need trails. We hope the council considers the benefits to the winter economy.”
Brittany Konsella of Share the Slate said her group wanted to support the idea and work with CBMBA on expanding signage and addressing etiquette, noting, “Improving education for all different user groups can hopefully reduce conflicts.”
Fat biker Sean Riley said he didn’t have to be as politically correct as Ochs and there were indeed tensions with the Nordic community. “It has been confrontational at times. They’ve been snobbish and elitist. There are communities where all sides collaborated and created a positive thing. That’s what we’d like to see with the Nordic community.”
Ken Stone of the Nordic Inn said the economic impacts that come with the new sport have been outstanding. For example, he said winter guests at the Nordic Inn increased by 12 percent last year. More than 320 guests spent some time fat biking and a third of them were first-timers. He said the Fat Bike Worlds brought in 151 room nights to the small lodge. He said it particularly came into play when there wasn’t much snow falling last January. “It really helped keep people involved and engaged,” Stone said. “Skier days aren’t growing rapidly. This sport helps.”
Janet Harvey reiterated concerns about trailhead congestion and wondered if normal tourists could handle the singletrack and distances being proposed by Ochs for grooming.
Third Bowl owner Kendall Tankersley agreed with Fuchs that the sport helped a small business like hers make it through a tough winter season. “I think having close-to-town mixed-use trails are important and what CBMBA is proposing will make it better for everyone.”
The council agreed with the general sentiment of the crowd. “It makes a lot of sense and gives people more to do,” commented councilman Roland Mason.
Councilman Chris Ladoulis was not in favor of adding a sentence to the Forest Service letter asking them to open the entire winter travel management discussion. “I think we should keep the ideas separate,” he said. “I don’t want to risk them deciding to postpone a decision on this to look at the bigger picture.”
“The Forest Service is a land of many uses,” noted councilmember Paul Merck. Fat biking “adds one more use for people when the snow is low.”
“I like the concept but don’t want people driving a car to ride a bike. I’d prefer everyone collaborate to be able to use the trails that start right in town, including the Nordic trails,” said councilmember Erika Vohman.
“Fat biking isn’t going away,” said councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “My only concern is the need for more trailhead management.”
Ochs said most trailheads sit on county property and not on Forest Service land.
The council voted 7-0 to send a letter of support to the Forest Service but agreed to include a sentence urging the USFS to look at the bigger winter picture and make sure the impact of the new use is managed adequately.