Citing concerns for public safety and property owner rights
By Cayla Vidmar
Increased backcountry use in the Irwin area during winter months has one property owner with a mining claim near Green Lake Road requesting the county do more to stymie winter public access, arguing for public safety and land owner rights.
“As a land owner, if you have a hazard on your property and someone trespasses and gets hurt on your property, they can sue you, even though they were trespassing,” said Eric Aslakson, who said he has an avalanche zone located near his property. He then cited an incident that occurred in January 2016 when a local man, Daniel Bradly Sethness, was in the area towing snowboarders behind a snowmobile when an avalanche broke and buried him into a tree well. Sethness died later that night at Gunnison Valley Hospital from his injuries.
Aslakson stated that because the county regulates the parking lot located at the Kebler Pass trailhead, they’re promoting the backcountry use. “If you want to promote that area as a statewide snowmobile destination, there has to be a policing mechanism; otherwise there’s going to be more people killed and land owners are going to get sued—it’s a tarnation,” said Aslakson.
He then suggested that the county close the parking lot except for property and homeowners who live there, and that not closing the trailhead to the public is irresponsible.
County commissioner Roland Mason said the Kebler Pass trailhead parking lot was a topic the county had been working on due to overcrowding. “I think that some of the issues you bring up are things we need to look at, especially in terms of public health and safety,” Mason said.
County manager Matthew Birnie responded to Aslakson saying, “Just because you get sued for something doesn’t mean you’re going to lose.” Aslakson said he had put up nine-foot fences with “No Trespassing” signs around his property, but said at some point the fence had been torn down.
Mason said, “More enforcement in general is also something we’re looking into, and again, the Forest Service and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] have very limited resources.” He also said providing education in the area is an important component of public safety.
Aslakson expressed frustration over an incident this winter in which a snowmobile club from Gunnison led a tour over one of his fences. “Once a trail gets started, the public uses it,” he said.
“There’s moral responsibility if someone gets killed. Who is responsible for it?” Aslakson asked.
“The backcountry user,” replied Birnie, to which Aslakson retorted that it’s also on the county, stating that the county doesn’t warn backcountry users to not trespass.
“People have a duty to follow the law. There’s not a duty to hold their hand the entire time they’re on public land,” said Birnie.
Aslakson stated his desires for the county to post “No Trespassing” signs, and to “not promote the area as a snowmobile area,” which he believes the county does by regulating the parking lot at the Kebler Pass trailhead.
The discussion was cut off, with the intention of the county commissioners to review a 60-page packet of research and information Aslakson had prepared arguing for his case.