With a surge of snowmobiles in the backcountry this winter, some are wondering if the time has come to better regulate the motorized vehicles in the San Juan Mountains.
“It’s increasing significantly,” said Anthony Garcia, a San Juan National Forest biologist in Pagosa Springs. “I’ve been riding 25 years, and it’s been nowhere near the levels we’re seeing now, and it presents new challenges for management.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has closed or limited capacity at bars, restaurants and gyms, as well as all the other usual day-to-day activities, public lands across the West have seen increased visitation.
As a consequence, all the ensuing pressures on the landscape and impacts to the environment have come with it.
Public land agencies had hoped for a brief reprieve this winter to prepare for what some predict will be an even busier summer in 2021. But, as it turns out, winter is proving just as hectic.
One activity land management agencies are dealing with is an uptick in snowmobiles cruising through the backcountry, which has renewed calls among some to better regulate how and where the motorized vehicles can use the landscape.
“Now, for the most part, you can take a snowmobile anywhere you want,” said Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands Alliance policy director. “And every year you wait to make a plan, the harder it is to make that plan. It’s a big effort, but worth it.”
Tyler Albers, trails program manager for the San Juan National Forest’s Pagosa Ranger District, said it wasn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic that led to more people riding snowmobiles this year in the backcountry.
“From November until about now, we were the only location in the U.S. with sufficient snow for backcountry recreation,” he said.
Michael Kukuk, president of the Wolf Creek Trailblazers, Pagosa Springs’ snowmobile club, said he grew up riding in the area, and had never seen it as busy as it is this winter.
“Trying to find parking has been a nightmare, I’ve never seen it like that,” he said. “We’ve had numbers we’ve never seen down here.”
Atop Wolf Creek Pass, Albers said parking has become a huge issue, as well as people camping at trailheads. And, he said there’s been an associated increase in search and rescue missions for snowmobiles caught in the backcountry.
About two weeks ago, for instance, a father and a son became stuck in the Fall Creek drainage, accessed from Wolf Creek Pass, and were forced to spend the night outside. Both were ultimately brought to safety and unharmed.
Also, Albers said because so many people are out snowmobiling, drivers are ending up on groomed ski trails. One particular area of conflict, he said, is on the groomed Nordic ski trails on Fall Creek Road.
“Snowmobiles are allowed there, but asked to respect the grooming efforts of the Nordic Club,” he said. “But the snowmobiles will go in there and disrespect it and tear it up.”
Indeed, Davey Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, said snowmobiles have been a major issue this year at his ski area.
Pitcher said snowmobile use has blown up on a 20,000-acre area atop Wolf Creek Pass, and increasingly, more people are riding within the bounds of his ski area, creating safety concerns.
Pitcher also called out concerns about the noise snowmobiles generate, as well as potential impacts to winter wildlife habitat, especially the threatened Canadian lynx.
“I don’t understand how this can be allowed to continue without some consideration to the environment,” Pitcher said.
All snowmobiles on public lands must be registered with the state of Colorado, and that includes any motorized vehicles, like dirt bikes or utility-terrain vehicles, that are outfitted for winter travel.
The other big rule, Albers said, is that snowmobiles, or any mechanized use for that matter, are not allowed in wilderness areas. But, despite patrolling, it’s notoriously difficult to catch people out of bounds.
“We try to find areas of concern and patrol those areas,” Albers said.
Other than that, snowmobiles appear to have free rein around public lands.
President Richard Nixon in the 1970s issued an executive order requiring federal land management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts associated with the use of all motorized vehicles on public land.
But the effort, over the years, had its challenges. So in the early 2000s, the Forest Service announced a new rule to implement “travel management plans” for each district to analyze and regulate motorized use in the backcountry.
The new rule, however, left winter travel management plans as optional, and it wasn’t until 2015 that the Forest Service changed course, requiring all districts to have winter regulations for motorized vehicles.
The problem for many districts, Eisen said, is that a winter travel plan isn’t a top priority. And, there’s limited resources (staff and time) throughout the Forest Service to take on the project.
“Most places don’t have them yet,” she said.
Indeed, James Simino, the San Juan National Forest’s Columbine district ranger, said the district does not have such a plan.
“It’s on our radar but we haven’t made it a top priority as of late,” he said. “But with the increased use we’re seeing, we weren’t prepared for that last summer, and some of it is carrying over into winter.”
Jimbo Buickerood, with San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the Forest Service’s claims over the years that it doesn’t have time or staff to draft a plan are hollow. He said the issue is especially pressing because of the rapid development of more powerful and versatile snow machines.
“Unfortunately, the Forest Service has significantly lagged on the prioritization of winter travel management planning despite the reality that such an effort would benefit both our public,” he said. “The recreating public and winter outfitters deserve better than to wait in line for a winter travel planning process that will be of benefit to all concerned.”
The only Forest Service district that has a winter travel plan in Colorado is the White River National Forest. Attempts to reach the district were not successful, but Eisen said many of the conflicts among user groups have been abated.
“Having a winter travel plan has helped in that regard,” she said. “You know where you can go snowmobiling, and you know where you can ski. It brings certainty and you don’t have to worry.”
The Forest Service’s Garcia said a winter travel plan could also help close areas that are critical winter habitat for wildlife, such as elk and deer, which can become disturbed by motorized use and waste precious energy when fleeing.
Those areas are not officially closed right now, Garcia said, but it’s highly discouraged to ride in those areas. All off-limit areas can be found on the San Juan National Forest Service’s website.
Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Pitcher added he has to conduct environmental studies for his ski area, and so too should manufacturers of snowmobiles that sell and market their product for use on public lands.
“The manufacturers are getting a free ride on public land,” Pitcher said. “And they should be held accountable and be required to do an environmental assessment of their impacts of their machines used exclusively on public land.”
Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, said the industry is not opposed to winter travel management plans, so long as all user groups are treated equally.
Klim said his association has been involved with several management plans throughout the West, and the group tries to support local snowmobile clubs and associations that know the region best.
“It makes for good neighbors,” he said.
The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association conducted a study recently that found snowmobile sales are up 19% from last year, representing the biggest growth in sales in 25 years.
About one-third of those sales were to people new to snowmobiling, the study found.
“We’re doing pretty well,” Klim said. “A lot of people are trying to get out. People have cabin fever.”
Scott Jones, executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said conflicts among winter user groups have been longstanding, and efforts have been made over the years to expand parking or improve boundary signs.
Jones added it is a constant effort to get people using the backcountry – and not just snowmobilers – educated about best practices, avalanche safety, off-limit areas, and a host of other issues.
Jones said he, too, is not opposed to winter travel management plans, but said snowmobilers are concerned that such efforts could be used to kick them out of areas where they are now allowed.
“A lot of these folks aren’t tolerant of other uses, and that’s a problem,” he said. “There’s always been conflict in winter recreation, just ask a skier and snowboarder. Twenty years ago, everyone thought snowboarders were the end of the world.”
Wolf Creek Trailblazers president Kukuk also said having more areas open to snowmobiles spreads the use, whereas closing areas forces more people into one area, exacerbating any associated impacts.
“It will make things worse,” he said.
The Forest Service’s Albers said a winter travel management plan, which is a public process, was supposed to get started for the San Juan National Forest about three years ago, but those efforts ultimately did not progress.
That might change, however.
“Just with the use coming to Southwest Colorado, it’s definitely something that needs to be looked at,” he said. “But we’re nowhere near making any changes right now.”