Longer-term solutions to be determined
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
The Kebler Pass winter trailhead and those who use it are facing some significant growing pains amid a “COVID-boom” of backcountry users and increasing Irwin town-site residents and development.
The trailhead has gotten some upgrades this fall, and county commissioners held a work session on Tuesday, October 27 regarding the county’s unique parking arrangement with the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest and the various user groups for the winter ahead.
The parking permit user fees for Irwin residents will likely increase by $25, to $125 from $100 per vehicle; the lot configurations will stay the same; two permits will be available to any residents who need them; and everyone expects a higher number of day users this winter. But while the permit program is coming together for this year, questions about future management remain unanswered.
Parking configurations at the Kebler trailhead include day use for GMUG visitors, guide/outfitter operations and both full-time and part-time residents of Irwin town-site who park there to access their properties. The county has used a permit system for several years to curb issues of overflowing parking and some former habits of non-Irwin residents staging their snowmobiles there for the entire winter season. Both problems made plowing the area challenging for the county.
Last year, the county’s parking permit system allowed one vehicle permit per Irwin household, with a limited number of second permits available upon request. The system also allowed permits for outfitters to park and store snowmobiles there, designating a lower lot for day use only.
Gunnison County has fielded concerns from Irwin residents about its management of the trailhead and recently imposed restrictions. Public Works director Marlene Crosby and U.S. Forest Service GMUG district ranger Matt McCombs have stated repeatedly that the GMUG and the county are under no obligation to provide overnight parking for anyone.
County commissioner Roland Mason, who has been working closely with all stakeholders on the Kebler trailhead issues, acted as moderator for the meeting on Tuesday. Aside from county staff, about 25 people participated in the Zoom meeting; many were Irwin residents or property owners.
Crosby gave a brief overview of the new trailhead improvements, which include a bathroom at the lower parking lot; new pavement; signage; and rocks to stabilize the soil against spring runoff. The overnight parking area has the same capacity as before of about 49 spaces.
“Last year we had 49 vehicle permits, 26 trailer permits and 172 snowmobile permits,” said Crosby. She said it would be up to the commissioners to determine permit costs and recommended that the number of permits be the same but that distribution be handled differently from last year. She said issuing one permit and then another later to each household was frustrating for Irwin residents and created a lot of extra work for everyone.
She also recommended snowmobile permits be limited this year, and that only one trailer permit be allowed per vehicle. Another suggestion was to grant each of the commercial outfitters three spaces in the lot and three spaces on the road.
Everyone seemed to agree that communication worked well between the outfitters and the permit users, with occasional kinks.
James Utt, who owns Action Adventures Snowmobile and ATV Tours, said on big snow days, if people are using those spaces and the county can’t plow, it can be kind of a mess. “When it works it works, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t… We want to be good neighbors, and help everyone out,” he said.
“I’m just trying to maximize the ability for people who live there to be able to park there overnight,” said Mason.
Trea Sciortino, president of the Irwin Community Association of property owners, which he estimated to have about 20 members, spoke of his issues with the county’s plowing and trailhead management. He said the process lacked adequate communication from the county, noting that the lower parking lot went from being free for everyone to use to being restricted without much process.
“There was never even a conversation about there being a parking problem until we had that lower lot parking stripped away,” he said.
GMUG district ranger Matt McCombs reviewed the history of this property.
“We are all aware that our visitation continues to grow, and I don’t think that is limited to summer… The relationship we have is unconventional—even peculiar,” he said. “We have not only a lot of public visitation, but also guides and services so that they can provide experiences and services to the American people that we couldn’t otherwise do. We have guest visitors to the trailhead as well as sustainable businesses that will likely persist and grow over time,” he said.
McCombs stressed that his organization has a duty to serve the American public. “And the American people generally aren’t psyched with exclusive private use of public land.”
In the interim, said McCombs, “This is going to provide reasonable accommodation to the community. We are hopeful that it will ease some of the conflict.” But he also emphasized that he did not want anyone to become reliant on a private use arrangement for the long term.
“I don’t want to incentivize any behavior pattern or expectation that leads to depending on these amenities,” said McCombs. “There was a heyday. It was awesome. But we have to manage this growth.”
Suggestions for the future include creating user fees for day use, which McCombs said is absolutely on the table.
Consensus was reached that in general, each full-time resident household should be allowed two vehicle permits for the season, and allowing five or six snowmobile permits per household would serve the needs of most residents. Commissioners said they will work out a system for residents to request additional snowmobile permits, as there are some cases in which people own closer to 10 and, in a few cases, as many as 16.
County commissioner Jonathan Houck said he wanted to avoid offering so many snowmobile permits that people might be tempted to secure extras for their buddies.
“That’s the problem we had to move away from,” said Houck. He also asked that in requesting permits of any kind, residents be reasonable and thoughtful neighbors. “If you only need one permit, don’t take two just because you can get them,” he said.
Mason also reflected that this winter would present a particular challenge for the trailhead management with a new parking lot and new trail users.
“We have a couple of new things going on. COVID has pushed a lot of people to the backcountry,” he said. “[We will have] people who aren’t going to be familiar with trailers and snowmobiles and have purchased those things to get out into the backcountry. I think these are things we’re going to have to work through this winter, but I think there’s a longer-term conversation that I would like to have with the future of how this is going to be mitigated.”
McCombs said he was on board with that. “I look forward to engaging with this community,” he said, with the key being sustainability and reliability. “I don’t expect that the ‘COVID-boom’ stops when the snow falls. We anticipate that as other leisure activities continue to be unavailable, that the outdoors are going to keep calling people.”
“This is a challenging area, and [we have an] understanding that for [the USFS] this is sort of on the outside edge of normal,” said Houck.
Mason, Crosby and other county personnel will work toward a final permit program recommendation for this year.
Irwin resident Kristi Murrin brought up the issue of the future that remained close to the discussion. Murrin said using the county assessor’s office, she has counted 28 people who live in the area year-round and 24 who live there part-time for a total of 52 occupants. She also counted 38 potential home sites within the town-site and she thinks the future will require more parking infrastructure, possibly by way of a land trade with the Forest Service. A new street, 12th Street, was recently installed at Irwin, with some planning and culvert assistance offered by the county. That could bring more development in the longer term.
“I have seen a lot of people shopping for land up there,” said Murrin. “I don’t see it slowing down.”