By Alex Menard
The Upper Crystal River Valley, from Marble to Schofield Pass, is the finest backyard anyone could wish for. Mostly spectacular wilderness, it also contains the town of Crystal with the famous mill and other historic mining sites. It is home to majestic mountains from the rugged granite ridges of Capitol and Snowmass peaks to the red ledges of the Maroon Bells. Vast spruce, aspen, pine and fir forests cover the sides of the peaks, where clear streams and lakes drain into the last free flowing river in western Colorado, the Crystal. This is home to elk, moose, bear, eagle and other wild neighbors.
The Lead King Loop (LKL) exists as a remnant of the mining era. The result is a narrow band of private land with county and forest roads, surrounded by designated and de facto wilderness. Another historical result is that the Upper Crystal Valley is under the jurisdiction of Gunnison County, while being widely separated from Gunnison physically.
The designated Maroon Snowmass Wilderness was included in the original Wilderness Act of 1964, which attests to its quality as a first selection. The LKL is conterminous on the north with wilderness for about 40% of its length. On the south side is the proposed Treasury wilderness. The LKL is the only access route for many trails into the wilderness from this side of the Elk Mountains range.
Motorized access has existed on the LKL since the first Stanley Steamer reached Crystal and jeep tours have been offered for half a century. But a recent form of transport, the ATV, has had a major impact on the environment, wildlife and quality of life for nearby residents.
First, in 2015, the town of Marble made the non-conforming use of ATVs in the town legal. Then, the use of ATVs was made legal on the county road by Gunnison County Commissioners. In both cases, these were not planned or thoughtful acts. In fact, they were just making a pre-existing use legal. These actions resulted last season in over 200 vehicles on the LKL on a single day.
Modern ATV use is not compatible with pedestrianism, which is an established use on the LKL. The intimidation caused by speeding vehicles, with accompanying noise, dust, fumes, erosion, damaged vegetation and scaring away of wildlife are negative effects imposed on hikers. And ATV use is not compatible with the fragile mountain environment on the LKL.
Protection means erring on the side of conservation, not recreation. The sheer volume of use requires some level of control. ATV users clearly have the largest impact and eliminating them would have the greatest effect and be easiest to enforce. This solution has historic precedence in Pitkin County.
Gunnison County has both the ability and the responsibility to manage ATV use on the LKL by controlling ATV use on the only access, County Road 3 (CR3). The tiny town of Marble has neither the ability or responsibility to manage forest use or provide services. The U.S. Forest Service will follow the lead and direction of the county by revising its Travel Management Plan for the LKL. This is how it happened in Pitkin County. If the town of Marble wants to continue having legal use of ATVs in town limits, this is totally compatible with an ATV closure on CR3.
Immediate closure of CR3 to ATV use and ATV trailer parking is necessary for resource protection. This action would eliminate access to the Lead King Loop by ATVs, reducing the largest part of environmental impact, stop conflict with hikers and return peace and quality of life to the towns of Marble and Crystal, as well as residents along CR3.
The expense of enforcement may be cited by county officials as a reason for delay. Banning ATVs from county roads is the policy in all the rest of Gunnison County, as well as in all of Pitkin County. In the event that the county commissioners fail to enact an ATV ban, a moratorium on all motor vehicles should be enacted immediately, with a locked gate installed on the county road. Residents and the jeep tour operator could be given a key or combo to the gate. Closure should remain in effect until support services such as parking, enforcement and restrooms are provided.
Assert your right to protect your backyard and to enjoy it in a quiet, sustainable way. Email the Gunnison county commissioners. Tell them this is your backyard more than theirs, as they are all on the other side of the mountains. Even if you are not their constituent, this is public land and belongs to you. Here are the addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, contact Alex Menard at email@example.com.