Winter Travel Management in the Gunnison Valley
Gunnison National Forest is part of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG). Gunnison NF was established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and named after explorer John W Gunnison. The forest encompasses about 2,613 square miles (1.67 million acres) in five counties (Gunnison, Saguache, Hinsdale, Delta, and Montrose). The forest also includes several 14er’s (14,000+ feet peaks), reservoirs, rivers and lakes, and portions of seven wilderness areas: West Elk, Raggeds, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Fossil Ridge, Collegiate Peaks, La Garita, and Powderhorn.
Gunnison National Forest offers unlimited year-round recreational opportunities!
Winter Recreation Activities
- Cross-Country Skiing/Touring (day tours)
- Backcountry Skiing/Boarding, Alpine Touring (peaks, hut trips)
- Nordic Skiing (groomed trails)
- Fat Bikes
primarily human-powered recreational/commercial
- Snowmobiling (recreational and commercial users)
- Hybrid Users (skiers/boarders using snowmobiles to access backcountry)
- Snowcat Touring/Skiing (Irwin/Eleven)
What is a Winter Travel Plan?
The Forest Service manages winter uses to protect resources and to provide a range of opportunities for motorized and non-motorized activities. The ideal winter travel plan provides for balanced use of public lands to optimize everyone’s recreation experience – motorized, mechanized, hybrid, and human-powered.
History of the Existing Winter Travel Management Plan (WTMP)
In the early 1990s, a small group of Gunnison Valley people called the “Gang of Nine” met with the Forest Service to develop a winter travel plan for the Crested Butte area. After much discussion from all types of winter backcountry users over multiple years, public comments were submitted, an environmental assessment was conducted, and the data were reviewed by the Forest Service. In 1995 a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was approved and the existing winter travel management plan is the result of those efforts back in the 1990’s. With the exception of a minor revision for Washington Gulch, there have been no changes to the Crested Butte area winter travel plan since 1995.
The existing winter travel Management Plan (WTMP) for the Gunnison National Forest is graphically illustrated in the “Winter Recreation Around Crested Butte” brochure/map. The map is available for free at the US Forest Service Office in Gunnison or the local visitor centers.
On the national level, the U.S. Forest Service has historically allowed its forests to forgo winter travel plans, but in 2015 the Agency changed direction, issuing a new Rule (the OSV Rule) requiring travel management plans to delineate where snowmobiles can and cannot go. When implemented correctly, the 2015 rule can have a host of social and environmental benefits, including providing higher quality recreational experiences for both motorized and non-motorized users, preventing avoidable resource damage, alleviating public safety concerns and conflicts between users, and benefiting local economies by encouraging visitation and tourism. Absent winter travel planning, conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreationists has grown, particularly as improving snowmobile technology has allowed growing numbers of people to access the backcountry from a limited number of plowed trailheads and parking areas. The noise, snow compaction, and air pollution associated with increasing snowmobile use across vast swaths of the national forests also disturbs wildlife during their vulnerable winter season.
A provision of the OSV Rule allows forests to forego the planning process and publish an Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map based on existing designations if existing over-snow vehicle designations were made through a public process (36 C.F.R. § 212.81(b) & (d). In effect this loophole states that forests can “grandfather” existing designations if they comply with the OSV Rule but it’s unclear what exactly this means. Winter Wildlands Alliance is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snow sports experience on public lands. Silent Tracks is a grassroots affiliate of WWA. Winter Wildlands Alliance was instrumental in getting the 2015 OSV Rule in place and has been closely tracking its implementation, making sure that forests comply with the new Rule. In addition to engaging in new winter travel planning processes, Winter Wildlands Alliance has closely tracked when, and how, the Forest Service has utilized the “grandfathering provision” to ensure that this provision is not abused. In 2016, the Boise, Payette, and Bridger-Teton National Forests published Over Snow Vehicle Use Maps (OSVUMs) based on their existing designations, referencing the grandfathering provision in the OSV Rule as justification. WWA, WildEarth Guardians, and The Wilderness Society raised concerns with the Forest Service about this use of the grandfathering provision, providing evidence that across the three forests, the outdated decisions adopted on each map did not comply with governing legal requirements to “minimize” the impacts of snowmobile use on natural resources and other recreational uses and did not reflect current circumstances, and therefore could not be grandfathered. Eventually the three conservation organizations took the Forest Service to court over these maps.
The conservation organizations argued that the OSV Rule requires forests to take meaningful action to manage OSV use in a manner that minimizes conflict between uses as well as impacts to wildlife and the environment, not simply roll over decades-old decisions. They provided evidence demonstrating that the decisions the Bridger-Teton, Boise, and Payette had “grandfathered” onto Over-Snow Vehicle Use Maps failed to account for changed environmental and social conditions, such as changes in visitor use patterns and numbers, climate change, and Endangered Species Act listings, and therefore did not comply with the OSV Rule. Before a Court could rule on the case, the 3 forests withdrew their OSVUMs and clarified that they needed to conduct OSV planning before publishing an OSVUM in the future. Because the forests withdrew their maps, the plaintiffs withdrew their lawsuit and the case was dismissed.
The intent of the 2017 lawsuit filed by Advocates for the West on behalf of Winter Wildlands Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and The Wilderness Society was to ensure that the Forest Service goes through an open and transparent public process before making decisions about what areas are, and are not, open to snowmobiles, and that those decisions are based on best available science, reflect current conditions, and comply with the 2015 OSV Rule.
The number of people, technological improvements, and types of winter recreation use in the backcountry of the Gunnison Valley have changed dramatically in recent years. In the 20+ years since those documents were approved, there has been dramatic technological advances in backcountry equipment. Snowmobiles have become much more powerful and capable of accessing terrain once considered inaccessible. Backcountry ski, telemark, and snowboard equipment have become much lighter and more advanced. An evolving new trend, alpine touring (AT), is the most rapidly growing and successful development in the ski industry. Snowshoeing, fat bikes, hiking and other uses in the backcountry continue to increase and new equipment advances are continually evolving. The use of powerful snowmobiles to travel across open meadows and other off-road areas has also increased. A relatively new trend is the “hybrid” snowmobile/skier who uses snowmobiles to access close-in peaks and ridges (less than 3 or 4 miles from trailheads, such as Coney’s) and more distant peaks and ridges and even mountain tops (including Mt. Emmons) that were once inaccessible to snowmobiles. Parking lots are overflowing. More people are competing for limited terrain in the backcountry – we ARE at a tipping point and changes are coming.
So what’s next?
It’s no secret the backcountry is getting busier and there are areas of conflict and concerns for the quality of the backcountry experience. The issues are coming to the forefront in newspapers and on social media. Plus, a federal ruling has mandated that all National Forests must create or revise a winter travel management plan (WTMP) for over-snow-vehicles (OSV).
Gunnison National Forest administrators have indicated that revision of the WTMP will take place in the next few years, once the Forest Plan revision is completed. This type of revision only occurs every 20 years or so, so it is extremely important for all recreationists to take the time to comment on issues and provide feedback to land managers so they can make informed decisions that represent all types of users. Every comment matters – stay informed and get involved!
Be Informed and Get Involved!
There will be opportunities for members of the community to get involved in the public comment process. Silent Tracks will notify members when public comments can be submitted, inform our membership of the issues,and notify them of meetings and other learning sessions. Silent Tracks, as a representative voice for human-powered recreationists and other quiet users, hopes to be an effective stakeholder along with motorized, non-motorized, and mechanized stakeholders and other organizations and individuals with pertinent input.
Click to view learning session series presentations:
Current Winter Travel Management Plan Concerns
What Can You Do Now?
Become a Silent Tracks Member and Support the Data Collection Initiative
In addition to public comments and representation at meetings, Silent Tracks believes the Data Collection Initiative (DCI) is vital to a successful WTMP revision. The DCI has been designed and conducted by graduate students at Western Colorado University Master in Environmental Management Program since 2016. The project is on-going and needs your support. Having multiple years of unbiased on-site data for comparison and analysis will be invaluable to the Forest Service.
A small number of concerned people representing the community at large, aka stakeholders, got together. After much discussion and debate, they developed a mutually agreed upon travel management plan which they submitted to the FS. The FS reviewed the document, made some revisions, issued a FONSI, and took action to approve the plan. Following a public comment period, it became the governing document.
This process, i.e., developing a revised winter travel management plan for FS review and approval, is what Silent Tracks and other stakeholders, will be undertaking in upcoming months! A collaborative effort between ALL of the stakeholders in the Gunnison Valley will be needed to develop a WTMP acceptable to a majority.