As temporary use by snowmobilers of a potential wilderness area at Molas Lake turned long-term, Bureau of Land Management officials decided enough is enough.
So, in an October order, Connie Clementson, field manager of the Tres Rios office of the BLM, said the 2013-14 winter will be the last that commercial and permitted snowmobile and dog-sled tour operators can use a 460-acre segment of 1,000 acres that Congress could label as wilderness.
Long use, albeit only a few months a year, they reasoned, could lead to undue expectations and influence a congressional decision about a permanent land-use designation.
A wilderness designation precludes motorized and other uses. The area is known as the West Needles Contiguous Wilderness Study Area.
Casual users – nonpermitted, noncommercial users such as individuals or clubs – received an additional year of grace. Their last winter will be 2014-15. The rationale, Clementson said, is that it takes longer to get the word out to a dispersed clientele.
However, a reprieve for users of the 460 acres is possible. Identical legislation in both chambers of Congress, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, contains language to remove the 460 acres from being labeled as wilderness, no matter what happens to the remaining acreage.
A Senate committee will discuss the bill Wednesday. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, has asked for a hearing in the House, aide Darlene Marcus said.
Jim Lokey, president of the Silverton Snowmobile Club, said last week the loss of the West Needles recreation area would be a blow to the community.
There are 104 miles of snowmobile trails around Silverton, but none like West Needles, Lokey said. The easy terrain is popular with recreationists, particularly families. The other areas are geared to more experienced riders.
Silverton merchants – restaurants, stores and motels – count on visitors to keep cash registers ringing, he said.
Lokey said the Colorado Snowmobile Association, of which his club is a member, is working with area legislators to get the Hermosa Creek legislation approved.
Lokey can’t visualize losing the West Needles area.
“We can’t replace that terrain,” Lokey said. “A few years ago, we were no longer allowed to groom the Andrews Lake area. We’re being downsized again.”
The West Needles snow-sport area has a long history. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM issued permits to use the West Needles tract, based on an interpretation that the use was temporary and wouldn’t disturb the ground.
It was expected that Congress would reach a decision about whether the 1,000 acres should be a wilderness. Legislators didn’t move expeditiously.
The BLM updated its policy in July 2012 to clarify the meaning of temporary. It said: “A chronic, repeated short-term use does not meet this definition of temporary. Uses, activities or facilities that create a demand for uses that would be incompatible with wilderness management also do not meet the definition of temporary.”
Jeff Christenson, outdoor recreation planner for the Tres Rios office, said the search is on for areas to replace the West Needles area if it’s not removed from the wilderness.
The 460 acres favored by snowmobilers for easy riding consist largely of meadow. The remainder of the potential wilderness is steep terrain that descends to the Animas River canyon or is forested land.
Extending the use of the West Needles acreage for a year allows time for Congress to remove the 460 acres from wilderness or to find an alternative snow-sport playground, Christenson said.