Irwin Backcountry Guides start seeking county land use approval

“It is just one of many regulatory steps”

Irwin Backcountry Guides (IBG) is making its case to the Gunnison County Planning Commission for commercial access to the backcountry terrain around the Irwin townsite, west of Crested Butte.





The company could be taking paying ski clients by snowcat into a private cabin and onto the surrounding National Forest in the area this winter if it can clear the regulatory hurdles that stand in its way.
IBG’s request for a land use change permit is coming on the heels of an Environmental Assessment completed by the U.S. Forest Service this year. The Forest Service Review resulted in a “Finding of No Significant Impact” issued September 24. IBG now has to wait out a 45-day appeal period before being issued a federal permit.
“The county process has to do with land use more than operations,” IBG operations manager Alan Bernholtz said. “It is just one of many regulatory steps that we need to go through.”
The special use permit IBG applied for with the U.S. Forest Service would allow the company to operate on 1,000 acres of public land encompassing parts of Scarp Ridge, Mt. Owens and Ruby Peak between December 1 and April 30.
Bernholtz told the Planning Commission at a work session Friday, October 16 that IBG would be allowed 2,000 total skier days during that period with a maximum of 24 skiers on a given day if the permit were issued.
He said the snowcat that will be used as transportation by the company has capacity for only 12 clients, which will keep the company well below the number of skiers allowed by the permit.
He added that using a tracked vehicle like theirs would also keep the operation from adding to the number of vehicles that will be parking on the Kebler Pass Road.
“We were trying to do this over-snow vehicle because the county, and a lot of us, were having issues with the congestion that is going to be occurring at the trailhead,” Bernholtz said. “This will alleviate any congestion as far as the drop-off [of clients]. This way we can drive the vehicle right through the trailhead and never have to stop.”
One of the county’s concerns with IBG’s proposal was the use of a portion of Kebler Pass, which is County Road 12 and will serve as the connection between the town of Crested Butte, where clients will be picked up, and the company’s base of operations at the so-called “movie cabin,” near the Irwin townsite.
The county’s interest in IBG’s land use plans go deeper than just the use of Kebler Pass Road, however.
Even though the company has gotten a preliminary go-ahead for its operation from the Forest Service, their entire plan still faces the scrutiny of the County Planning Commission, including the activities to take place on fewer than 80 acres of private land being used and the activities proposed on public land.
At the work session, Bernholtz gave the commissioners an overview of the operation, including access restrictions due to private property, avalanche mitigation measures and the company’s interaction with the public.
Many of the answers to the commissioners’ questions about the operation and the safety measures that would be in place were part of IBC’s special use permit application with the Forest Service. Bernholtz said he would provide the commissioners with copies.
But what they wanted was an inspection and sight-seeing tour of the area that IBG’s clients would be skiing in, set in a scenic location that was the backdrop for scenes from “The Swiss Family Robinson” and other movies.
Granting their request, IBG snow safety manager Billy Rankin took several commissioners and planning staff to the property owned by Scarp Ridge LLC, which is IBG’s parent company, and started the tour on a knoll with panoramic views of the permit area.
Rankin explained the operation and gave context to the permit by identifying areas mentioned in the application. He answered questions about avalanche control, emergency procedures and communications, which include scanning images of the area online as well as having cell phone and Internet service in the movie cabin.
At the movie cabin, commissioners were pleased to see the renovation of the 425-square-foot building nearly complete. Assistant planning director Neal Starkebaum was assured that the incinerator toilet that had been out of compliance and located in the movie cabin outhouse was removed and would probably be replaced with a portable toilet.
Crested Butte attorney David Leinsdorf, who is representing IBG, gave the commissioners a thorough history of the area and the buildings on the property owned by Scarp Ridge. He also reminded them of the backcountry skiing operation that was permitted access to the area for more than 15 years before IBG applied.
Bernholtz had told the commissioners at the work session about the earlier operation, which took skiers into the backcountry by snowcat from 1986 to 2002. The IBG manager was adamant that the commissioners consider the impacts of that operation in comparison with what is being proposed by IBG.
“There was an operation up there for 17 years and you would never know it today. We’re planning on opening a much smaller operation,” Bernholtz said. “Currently it is a motorized Mecca up there … with 8,000 snowmobile trips up there each year. There will be much less of an impact than if there was no operation.”
That operation had never gone through the county review process and the planning commissioners will now have a chance to include their point of view on backcountry ski operations in the record.
“The same could be said for a mine on Red Lady,” planning commissioner Ian Billick said in response to Bernholtz’ argument. “Just because it was there once doesn’t mean it should be there now.”
The commissioners won’t make a decision on IBG’s land use change application before reviewing the information IBG compiled for the Forest Service on human and environmental safeguards that are part of the plan. Commissioners will also have to consider any comments made at a public hearing on the application to be held on Friday, November 6.

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