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County grapples with potential increase in snowmobile traffic along Gothic Road

Ghosts of the Gang of Nine come haunting

By Kristy Acuff

Knowing that they might soon be opening what one commissioner describes as a “can of worms,” the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decided last week to postpone any decision on changes or even clarifications to mechanized winter access in the Gothic corridor.

At issue is a request by the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL) to potentially increase its snowmobile use to once a week along the stretch of County Road #317 between Mt. Crested Butte and Gothic townsite.

For the past 17 years RMBL has used a snowmobile to access its property periodically for winter maintenance and to move equipment. But responding to a request from the county to address potential future snowmobile use, RMBL now wants the official okay to increase the use to one weekly snowmobile trip to access the property if the need arises. It is this possible change that appears to be ruffling the feathers of the Gunnison County Planning Commission, the entity that oversees permits along the Gothic corridor.

Planning Commission members want clarification from the county commissioners as to whether increasing snowmobile traffic along the corridor is in accord with the Land Use Resolution adopted in 2001 by Gunnison County. The LUR states that “real property owners may use snowmobiles to access property” in the gothic corridor but does not specify how often or for what purpose. And thus, the can of worms.

“The Planning Commission cannot make a decision to issue a permit change that goes against the original Land Use Resolution,” Marlene Crosby, Gunnison County Public Works director, stated at the December 18 BOCC meeting. Crosby expressed concern about changes to RMBL’s snowmobile usage because “the assumption is that the snowmobile access is for residential landowners, not commercial landowners, but RMBL is a commercial operation.”

RMBL executive director Ian Billick said the lab has no immediate plans to expand programs that might result in the need for a more regular, weekly snowmobile trip to the Gothic townsite but the county requested that RMBL clarify its future snowmobile use. Billick noted the current LUR language makes no distinction between commercial and residential property owners. In addition, Billick asserted that snowmobile access was granted in the original LUR without limit and therefore the proposed weekly usage falls within its guidelines.

When asked later via email from the News to clarify RMBL’s intent, Billick responded, “RMBL is strongly committed to management of the upper East River Valley for non-motorized use. When the county closed the valley to snowmobiles it allowed real property owners to use snowmobiles. As a real property owner, we have occasionally taken snowmobiles out to Gothic not as a matter of convenience, but when we have needed to move items that were too heavy for skis. RMBL has always run winter programs out of Gothic, but we are seeing more demand…”

Billick said he doesn’t foresee any increase in the number of trips to the Gothic townsite through 2018-2019. He said the county asked for a clarification on potential future snowmobile use, which is why the lab included the possible weekly trip in its permit application.

“We are not certain what programs would look like beyond 2019, though our goal would be to have one or two new programs,” Billick explained. “All of the winter programs would be research and education programs taking advantage of being in Gothic, such as avalanche courses, K-12 winter programs, and undergraduate hydrology/snow courses. Our application includes meetings, but any meetings not directly related to research and education would be when you could drive in during summer and fall. Recognizing increased winter activities could at some point generate increased snowmobile use on our part, we suggested that one trip a week might be a reasonable limit on the frequency of trips.”

The county is concerned about the potential of more snowmobiles to create conflict in the historically quiet Gothic corridor and some county commissioners are bristling at the idea of opening such a discussion.

County commissioner Jonathan Houck expressed concern that the county may tip the scales in the wrong direction if it approves increased snowmobile traffic.

“My main concern is keeping the Gothic corridor as is, and not opening the door to rehashing the debate of winter motorized use in that area. There are some permissible motorized uses by permit and by right for those owning property. Any new or expanded commercial use has the potential to tip the scales and have unintended consequences,” stated Houck.

Houck pointed out that changing protocol in one drainage could force the county to reexamine winter access in other drainages as well, because the LUR was originally drafted with reliance upon the “Gang of Nine” recommendations. The Gang of Nine was a group of local stakeholders who reached compromises with winter travel management in the upper East River valley by dedicating the various local valleys to different priority uses.

“The Gang of Nine specifically designated the Kebler Pass area as open to snowmobiling and motorized uses and kept Gothic corridor quiet and non-motorized,” explained Houck. “The rest of the drainages fall somewhere in between with mixed uses. The community has strongly supported that the Gothic corridor maintain its quiet, human-powered travel designation. RMBL’s application will need to be measured on details but for this discussion about use in the Gothic area, I continue to support the long-standing position to minimize motorized use in this area.”

Billick asserted that RMBL’s plans are in accord with the goal to keep Gothic a quiet, non-motorized corridor. Billick wrote, “Currently the resolution provides real property owners access without limit. If RMBL were to grow programs such that we were regularly exercising that right, it would undercut the intent and desire to have the valley be for non-motorized recreation. We suggested that except in emergencies we would limit our access to one trip a week. It would be easy to time trips to avoid periods of heavy use.”

All in attendance agreed that re-opening a large discussion about winterized access in multiple drainages was not the answer and should be avoided at the present time.

“I was at the table as part of the Gang of Nine,” recalled county attorney David Baumgarten. “Those discussions are what turned my hair from black to gray to bald. Trust me, you don’t want to go through that again.”

None of the three county commissioners were ready to make a decision regarding the weekly snowmobile trips and decided to further discuss the issue at a future work session.

“I need time to contemplate what this means for this drainage and how it could affect the LUR for the rest of the drainages in the valley,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland. “I think the intent of the original LUR document—the intent of the Gang of Nine—was quiet use, non-motorized for private residential only. I need time to think about this one.”

“What we have in Crested Butte and Gothic is special,” concluded Billick. “No other place in the world has our combination of outdoor enthusiasts, research history and infrastructure, including around snow, non-mechanized and mechanized winter recreation, and one of the U.S.’s largest gathering of internationally recognized guides. As backcountry use grows, we hope the county will allow RMBL to actively work with the backcountry community rather than be forced into a reactive mode.”

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