By Alex Menard
As the upper Crystal Valley sheds its protective coat of winter white, many things are revealed. The daily appearance overhead of a pair of bald eagles means that our ecosystem has a crowning touch: an eagle’s nest. On McClure Pass, the melting snow makes way for a flowery carpet of yellow glacier lilies and white and lavender spring beauties. But memories of past summers have put residents on the defensive.
In Marble, residents are installing barriers to protect their yards from the annual return of motorized visitors. The town of Marble is installing “No Trailer Parking” signs to prohibit parking for ATV unloading on town streets, and is considering an ordinance to ban all Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) unloading in town limits. Gunnison County has promised steep fines to enforce parking regulations on County Road 3 (CR3), the access road to the Lead King Loop (LKL).
The Lead King Loop Stakeholder Group (LKLSG), formerly known as the LKL Working Group , has revealed its recommendations after meeting for more than three years. At the listening session meeting, hosted on April 28 at the Marble Fire Station, some recommendations were revealed including a parking lot at the base of Daniels Hill. Other recommendations are less concrete: signs and education, some sort of reservation/permit system, a modification of road maintenance standards.
Melanie Armstrong of the Center for Public Lands was the facilitator of the group. She explained that the group’s name was changed from “working” to “stakeholder” because “stakeholders were representatives of residents.” She did not explain why representation involved a nondisclosure agreement to not discuss the contents of the ongoing work sessions with the residents until now.
After the introduction, the group broke into five smaller discussion stations focused on: parking options, road conditions, reservations/permit system, signs and education and OHV prohibition. As reported last week, the Stakeholder Group did not actually discuss improving road conditions or an outright ban on ATVs, like in Pitkin County, during their meetings.
The proposed location for parking at the base of Daniels Hill is a meadow surrounded by wetlands and inhabited by a beaver colony. It is bordered on three sides by the historic Lost Trail Ditch which supplies over 20 homes. Two homes are immediately adjacent to the proposed lot. Local residents immediately spoke in opposition as the parking plan was announced.
According to Armstrong, “The establishment of the parking lot would be a development on federal land subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and would require an Environmental Assessment (EA).” An EA would require a rigorous review of all possible options and have high standards about data collection. Melanie continued, “Approval of a parking lot will take years.”
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Kevin Warner disagreed on this point, stating, “There may be grounds for a Categorical Exclusion from an EA requirement, due to the small size of the project and the scoping already done.” Scoping refers to the gathering of public comments. During the LKLSG process, scoping focused on residents of Marble, but not Gunnison county residents living outside town limits.
Warner responded to questions about the data collection regarding LKL users. “The traffic counters on the road did not distinguish between ATVs, jeeps or passenger cars.” There is also no data about what percentage of users are hikers.
Tom Sobal of the Quiet Use Coalition, an advocacy group, questioned the study. “How can they make policy without knowledge of the relative numbers of user groups?” He then cited that “White River National Forest annual visitation figures show hikers as the second largest user group after skiers. Annual figures show hikers at 30%-40% of total use, with ATVs at less than 2%.”
Sobal explained the concept of disproportionate impact. “ATV trucks and trailers use two to three times the space for parking and unloading as other users. The noise and dust they create eventually drives away other users. Studies have shown that ATVs have the largest negative effect on wildlife, trail quality, vegetation and even air and water quality.”
Sobal has experience with other stakeholder groups and compares their process with that of professional environmental planners. “Stakeholder groups attract members with special interests and environmentalists are underrepresented. Stakeholder groups have lower standards for data collection and consideration of alternatives and may be steered in a predetermined direction by leaders with a hidden agenda.”
He calls the parking lot proposal “an active accommodation of ATVs, not just an allowing of use, which does nothing to manage use and will actually expand use.” The proposed parking lot is accessed by a driveway to private residences, behind a gate that has remained locked for the past 60 years. The Forest Service is now requiring that gate to remain unlocked.
Roland Mason is Gunnison County commissioner for District 3, which includes Marble and the adjacent area. When asked why he was putting ATV use above the right to peace and quiet for residents who are his constituents, he replied: “I am following the lead of the town of Marble.” In fact, no formal survey has been conducted to determine residents; general sentiment toward ATVs.
The Marble Crystal River Chamber met on April 29 and supported a ban on parking for ATV unloading in both the town and on CR3. The chamber has supported an alternative promotion for Marble called the “soft path,” which promotes the natural, scenic, historic and cultural resources over more impactful activities.
The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative, meanwhile, is supporting expansion of the Raggeds Wilderness over the top of Treasure Mountain and down to the private lands in Crystal. This would make the LKL even more of a “keyhole” road, a high-impact motorized anomaly between the Raggeds and Maroon-Snowmass wilderness areas.
The Treasure Mountain Ranch (TMR) proposed development, which owns most of the town of Crystal and surroundings, remains a wildcard player. Spokesman Stuart Gillespie has offered a parcel of private land for an interim parking lot. Packing of the Crystal Road by the TMR snowcat has resulted in expansion of ATV use during winter in violation of the travel management plan. Shelly Grail, recreation ranger for Forest Service stated: “TMR could even start their own shuttle service for guests without a Forest Service permit.”
The stakeholder group will have one final meeting to discuss input from the listening session and issue final recommendations. The only changes on the ground, so far, are more “No Trailer Parking” signs.