Access issue prompts USFS to recommend alternative routes to Green Lake near Irwin

Sheriff staying out of it for now

by Mark Reaman

The controversy over access on the Green Lake Road above Lake Irwin has not been settled and so the Forest Service is asking people to avoid the area and use alternative hiking routes to get up to Green Lake at the base of Ruby. The county sheriff’s office is not taking any sides on the matter.

Under the U.S. Forest Service website “Alerts and Notices” tab, the USFS posted an alert titled “Green Lake Road Closure.”

“A landowner has gated the Green Lake Road (NFSR 826.1D) at his property boundary, above Lake Irwin in the Gunnison Ranger District,” the alert reads. “Because this road goes through private land, hikers may not use the road to access the forest beyond the private land section.” It then links to more information and suggested alternate routes.

“The Forest Service is exploring ways to restore public access through the private property. Our intention is to work with landowners, Gunnison County and other interested parties to find a solution,” the alert continues. “In the meantime, there are no other roads that provide access to Green Lake. Alternate hiking access to the Green Lake area will entail cross-country travel and likely will be arduous, such as using the Scarp Trail National Forest System Trail (NFST) 421 or Ridge Trail (NFST 419) near the Irwin Lodge Road to access Scarp Ridge and then hiking along the ridge and down into the basin. Such hikes will include exposed ridges, steep scree slopes, brush-covered areas, running water and wetlands. We also suggest the Dyke trail as a nearby trail to explore. The Scarp and Ridge Trails are the only National Forest System trails in that immediate vicinity. Be advised parking restrictions are in place on the Irwin Lodge Road.”

When asked by email about the situation this week, Gunnison County sheriff Rick Besecker said he is essentially not taking a position on the matter. “I have no authority over the gate; nor do I have an opinion related to the issues surrounding the Green Lake Road,” he wrote.

That is frustrating to property owner J.W. Smith and his attorney Rufus Wilderson, who asked if the sheriff doesn’t enforce trespassing issues on private land in the county, who would? The whole access situation began in earnest last summer when Smith, who owns a mining claim about a mile above Lake Irwin closed the road that cuts through his property and eventually allows people to get to Green Lake at the base of Ruby and Owen. Smith recently built a house on the property that he has owned for 17 years.

Smith has previously explained that the growth in hiking and vehicle traffic across the property had expanded exponentially in recent years and trespassing issues became rampant when people went off the road to avoid extremely poor road conditions or take short-cuts. Last August Smith installed a gate across the road at the edge of his property.

The Gunnison County commissioners through county attorney David Baumgarten had attempted to resolve the issue earlier this year through negotiation and compromise but to no avail. Smith’s attorney says there is not a recorded easement nor a court decision establishing the road as a public road as it traverses private land.

Wilderson indicated in a recent letter to the Forest Service and Gunnison County that the Lake Irwin Coalition has “enticed” people to attempt to use the road across Smith’s property. Wilderson suggests such action is “an apparent desire that this matter evolve toward violence …” His letter concludes that “a resolution that accommodates all parties demands patience—not provocation.”

A Forest Service response to Wilderson makes it clear that the Forest Service is not directing or encouraging people to hike or otherwise use the road. In fact they make it clear that their official stance is for people to avoid the road or use other trails to get to Green Lake until the matter is resolved. That resolution does not seem likely any time soon.

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