USFS requests county funds for forest protection officers near Marble

Paying the Forest Service “to patrol their own land?”

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County commissioners are hesitant about a new request from the White River National Forest Service to contribute toward an ongoing effort to improve the Lead King Loop, a busy area for mixed-use recreationalists near marble. Recognizing that a combination of changes may be warranted for the area and it will take time to coordinate among the multiple jurisdictions and managing agencies that overlap there, county representatives have taken part in a stakeholder’s group and contributed funds, personnel and other resources to helping the situation, but are now questioning where to draw the line. 

The Lead King Loop is a popular OHV (off-highway vehicle) and ATV (all-terrain vehicle) trail located outside the town of Marble just off County Road 3, and its heavy summer use has led to increased concerns about noise, safety issues, parking violations and environmental degradation.  A working group which involved Marble and Gunnison County representatives, nearby residents, law enforcement, the White River National Forest Service and the Center for Public Lands at Western Colorado University, issued a formal recommendation last fall for changes to parking, better law and policy enforcement and continued outreach and education.  

However, decisions have not yet been made to act on the specific recommendations and another summer is now on the horizon. 

Gunnison County manager Matthew Birnie informed commissioners on Tuesday, March 21 that the White River National Forest, whose jurisdiction includes the Lead King Loop, has asked for $10,000 for the third year in a row to contribute to a forest protection officer to alleviate the impacts on the Lead King Loop.  

The officers have patrolled the loop the past two summers and made contact with visitors to help minimize their impacts, particularly on busy days. While Gunnison County has contributed to this fund for the past two summers, it was considered temporary while the stakeholder group formed a policy recommendation for the area. 

Public affairs officer David Boyd with the White River National Forest confirmed that “We have received $10,000 the last two years (’21 and ’22) from Gunnison County for the forest protection officer. Marble has contributed to Gunnison County for that agreement.” Boyd said $10,000 covers two days per week of patrol on the Lead King Loop and surrounding area.

Since the contribution was considered temporary and the recommendation was submitted last year, the expense was not included in the county’s 2023 budget as an ongoing expense. And while Birnie indicated the funds could be found in budget reserves, it also raises a larger policy question.

“I think it’s problematic from a public policy point to pay [the Forest Service] to patrol their own land; but that’s the only way they are going to do it,” he said.

A report from the U.S. Forest Service last year showed that forest protection officers were present 32 days, which commissioners regarded as minimal for their previous contribution of $10,000. The town of Marble has agreed to contribute $3,000 again this year. 

County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck said his concern was about setting a precedent for permanently funding that program.

County commissioner Liz Smith said the feedback she hears from the Marble community is that that they want this support, but she agreed that it did not necessarily need to come from the county. 

Birnie said there are some other avenues of funding to explore, and county commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels asked if some Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee funds could go toward the seasonal contribution. 

Houck said that STOR could be a fit from the perspective that it addresses outdoor recreation, maintenance and infrastructure, but that STOR focuses mainly on the Gunnison National Forest since that covers the majority of Gunnison County. 

The commissioners determined that the funding decision warrants a more involved work session to decide on the county’s policy, and commissioners will invite the town of Marble representatives and White River National Forest leaders to join them.

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