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As Colorado backcountry use soars, Vail Pass’ fee model could be a way to manage the crush

Dangerous avalanche conditions, combined with high backcountry use, create a busy season for managers of public lands.

A group of women ski down a backcountry trail after a night in a hut on Shrine Mountain. The Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area is split almost evenly between non-motorized and motorized users. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)
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VAIL PASS — Four women on backcountry skis, packs strapped to their backs, glided single file down a powdery path out of the woods after a night at Walter’s Cabin, a hut on Shrine Mountain. Their peaceful trek into the backcountry of Vail Pass this week included pausing to scope out tracks left by a snowshoe hare.

In the distance behind them, two snowmobiles roared through a valley on their way to Shrine Bowl, a popular spot to attempt high-pointing — zooming their sleds as close as possible to the cornice, halfpipe-style. 

“We’ve got kite skiing. We’ve got folks driving around in John Deere tractors with tracks on. And jeeps with tracks. And classic snowcats. And speedflyers,” said Sam Massman, a Dillon-based acting deputy ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. “The use spectrum is the entire spectrum.”

Backcountry use at Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area is split down the middle: half the visitors are on skis and snowshoes, and the other half are cruising the 55,000 acres of the White River National Forest on motorized vehicles. The bulk of the non-motorized users are there to spend a night in a 10th Mountain Division hut, sharing the forest with adventurers who booked guided trips with one of about 20 permitted outfitters as well as day-trippers who rented snowmobiles in Summit County on their drive toward 11,000 feet and Vail Pass.

All that mixed-use recreation is keeping snow rangers who manage the area busier than ever,  as backcountry use spikes in Colorado against the backdrop of dangerous snowpack this season that’s prone to slide.

And fees, long a contentious word on Colorado’s public lands, are helping them manage the surge. 

Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, just off Interstate 70, rises above the ski slopes of Copper Mountain. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The backcountry access point just off of Interstate 70 is unique in Colorado — it’s the only Forest Service-operated winter recreation area in the state funded through fees allowed under the federal Recreation Enhancement Act. Almost 38,000 people visited at least once last winter, and the area is even more popular this winter during the pandemic. Fees brought in more than $46,600 in revenue in November and December 2020, compared with $31,000 in the same two months in 2019. 

The Forest Service’s success in managing parking, search-and-rescue access, and conflict between buzzing snow-sled engines and folks who come to quietly skin up the trails has other winter recreation areas on public lands taking notice.

Popular backcountry destinations, including Buffalo Pass near Steamboat and Red Mountain Pass near Ouray, have also experienced a boom in users during the past few years, but without the same budget.

Inexperienced backcountry skiers and riders are getting stuck in the snow, or lost in the woods. Quiet skiers and loud snowmobilers are confronting each other on the trails. Parking lots are packed, and people are parking illegally along roads, potentially blocking search-and-rescue teams, plows and emergency vehicles. Commercial operators mingle paying guests with recreational users. The chance for conflict seems to grow by the day.

“There are a lot of different people out there, but a lot of forests don’t have the funding and the staffing to really address the use that we’ve seen,” said snow ranger Kate DeMorest, the Forest Service’s lead manager for the Vail Pass area. “Some of these other trailheads that don’t have management or staffing, it’s a little bit of a clown show, to say the least.” 

Vail Pass runs “like a small business”

The Vail Pass area has become a model in backcountry management. About 95% of the funds collected are returned to the area to pay for plowing parking lots, grooming 50 miles of trails for snowmobiles, timber sleds and snowcats, and cleaning the pit toilet. 

We don’t actually get any appropriated funding here. We run Vail Pass like a small business, which a lot of people don’t realize. It’s really like supporting local. Support your local ranger.

Kate DeMorest, Vail Pass snow ranger

“It doesn’t go back to Washington,” DeMorest said. “We don’t actually get any appropriated funding here. We run Vail Pass like a small business, which a lot of people don’t realize. It’s really like supporting local. Support your local ranger.”

The latest enhancements include a fee station that accepts credit cards, set up two seasons ago and funded by the enhancement fee, and new this year, two avalanche beacon checkpoints posted at the trailheads and funded by community partners. A solar-powered light blinks green if a beacon is transmitting and a giant sign explains the avalanche risk and asks, “Are you beeping?” 

U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Kate DeMorest, lead manager for the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, describes new avalanche beacon checkpoints placed this week at backcountry trailheads at Vail Pass. The two solar-powered checkpoints ask “Are you beeping?” and flash green if a nearby beacon is working. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Also new: visitors can find a map of the area on the app Avenza, then use a smartphone to track their location via GPS. If they get their snowmobile stuck, get lost or break a ski binding in the middle of the woods, they can easily tell rescuers where they are. The QR code to download the app is now posted at the trailhead, accessed as easily as a COVID-19-era restaurant menu. 

For those who prefer paper, the area has a trail map — though the trail and area names used by the snow rangers, including “The Burn” and “The Claw,” are not printed. 

The area has 11 staffers this winter, including four interns from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and snow rangers who cruise around on snowmobiles checking to make sure people purchased permits and regularly get flagged down to answer questions from first-timers. It’s a huge bump from years past, when the winter staff ranged from four to six people. 

Search and rescue crews, either from Vail or Summit County, are called to the area most weekends, DeMorest said. And about once every week or two, people stop at the booth near the trailhead to report that they triggered an avalanche, she said. 

Vail Pass hasn’t had any deadly avalanches this year, though four backcountry skiers died in three separate slides in Colorado last month. 

DeMorest stopped along an ungroomed, backcountry trail Tuesday and used her ski pole to point high up the mountain to two fresh avalanches that slid within the prior week. The snowpack is unstable again this year, built on a “rotten” layer of early-season snow that fell amid warm temperatures in the high country.

Wind, too, has caused several avalanches in the area, she said. “A lot of stuff in the backcountry was ripping out with the high winds we’ve had,” DeMorest said. “It’s just kind of adding on to a bad snow year.” 

DeMorest, who has helped manage the Vail Pass area for four years, supervises a band of snow rangers who patrol the vast area of forest, meadows and peaks. They gather in a wall tent at Shrine Pass warmed by a small wood stove and stocked with split wood, water bottles and Oreo cookies. DeMorest travels with a thermos of hot tea in her backpack, sipping from a small silver cup as she takes a quick break. 

Snow ranger Kate DeMorest, the U.S. Forest Service’s lead manager for the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, goes into a wall tent to warm up at the top of Shrine Pass. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Members of her crew stop by with questions, including whether they can move signs in the snow to make them more visible. The crew is trained in first-aid and avalanche-safety skills. DeMorest’s key focus is on educating backcountry users to “have fun without harming your neighbor,” and trying to separate skiers and snowshoers from motorized vehicles. 

To that end, the area has zones that are off limits to snowmobilers, and has various designated, groomed trails intended for motorized sleds to get to popular pitches. Still, it’s not uncommon for skiers to cross paths with thundering snowmobiles on a corduroy trail, or for a hut-tripper to complain about a “snowmobile doing loops around the hut that I paid $65 to stay in,” she said. 

And the rescue calls, along with inexperienced backcountry skiers and riders, keep coming. “I haven’t had a weekend yet where we didn’t get a search and rescue call,” DeMorest said. The ability to rent motorized vehicles without using a guide service has resulted in “mismatched skills with mismatched machines,” and people who need help after their snowmobile gets stuck in a snow drift, she said.

Still, she often fields this question from folks complaining about the usage fee: “What do you even do up there?”

Fees were increased in 2019

The recreation area began collecting the enhancement fee to use the public land in 1998. It raised the fee in 2019 for the first time since 2005. Daily passes jumped to $10 from $6, and season passes to $65 from $40.

The increase came after a three-year process in which the Forest Service sought community input, noting then that visitation to the Vail Pass area had doubled in the prior 15 years, reaching more than 32,000 visitors in the 2017-18 season. 

“If you have a fee, you know you have a budget,” Massman said. 

The pay-to-play concept is a hot topic among forest managers and state policymakers struggling to maintain public lands as Colorado’s population grows and more people head to the backcountry each year. The state’s 2018 “comprehensive outdoor recreation plan” notes that the state must explore “more stable funding sources” in order to maintain outdoor recreation areas. 

U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Kate DeMorest, lead manager for the Vail Pass area, stops while skinning up Shrine Pass to talk to one of her snow rangers on snowmobile patrol. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

But fee increases, or new fees, for the use of public lands are controversial. 

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, among others, is primed to battle proposed fees on public lands. The coalition was formed in 2001 by four “renegades from Western Colorado who refused to pay $5 to drive on a dirt road” and has fought against making backcountry users pay to enjoy federal land supported by tax dollars. 

Last year, after Colorado Parks and Wildlife began requiring visitors to buy a hunting or fishing license to use state wildlife areas, regardless of whether they were hunting or fishing, the state agency was sued by an animal rights group.The new rule came after an uptick in visitors to wildlife protection lands who are coming not to hunt or fish, but to hike, climb or paddle board. The policy is unpopular with various recreation groups, who asked the state agency to delay the rule change.

On Buffalo Pass, an area near Steamboat Springs that has grown more popular in recent years with guided backcountry ski trips, snowmobilers and “hybrid” skiers who use snowmobiles to go uphill and skis to go down, the day and season passes required to use the area are still free. Local land managers and community officials have discussed imposing a fee, but so far are relying on community partnerships and local tax dollars to help manage the area. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The pass, known in better snow years for its deep powder, has a toilet and a parking lot near Dry Lake for about 40 vehicles. There is no trash service, no regular law enforcement and no dedicated snow ranger on patrol. 

“We don’t have a snow ranger focusing on Buffalo Pass,” said Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist for Routt National Forest. “That is not a luxury we have right now.”

“What we have is a parking lot and a bathroom.” 

Instead of launching into the fraught process of creating a fee, which requires public input and government-set timelines, Buffalo Pass stakeholders are looking at other options. A group organized by the Routt Recreation Roundtable has discussed whether it could hire a parking lot attendant or someone to patrol the area and steer people toward motorized and non-motorized zones.  

“What they have happening up on Vail Pass is amazing, but it’s probably the exception rather than the rule regarding winter recreation on the national forest,” Voos said. 

State money collected from snowmobile registration funds trail grooming on Buffalo Pass, and local taxes go toward road maintenance. But the parking lot closest to the Steamboat side of the pass is regularly clogged with backcountry visitors and, this winter, the Forest Service is reminding people to yield to snowcats and not camp overnight at the trailhead.

Parking at the Buffalo Pass trailhead has been a pinch point for the increased traffic at the popular backcountry destination. (Provided by Steamboat Powdercats)

Earlier this month, the Forest Service asked winter recreationalists headed to Buffalo Pass to check the Steamboat Chamber website and a Twitter feed, @StmbtTrailheads, that includes real-time photos of the pass parking lot. If it’s full, don’t come, they urged.

The message came after a “dialogue about solutions” among the Forest Service, local government officials, backcountry-users and permit holders, Voos said.

The increasing popularity of the area was highlighted last year when a former guide for Steamboat Powdercats, which runs snowcat ski trips on the pass, planned to write a guidebook using ski run names made up by the Powdercats. The company sued, claiming violation of trade secrets, and then dropped the lawsuit when its former guide agreed not to use the same names for the ski runs. 

Same as at Vail Pass recreation area, the goal is to allow everyone to enjoy Colorado’s public lands without hurting themselves or wrecking the experience for others. At Vail, land managers are working, too, to find balance between keeping the areas wild and adding enough signs, beacon checkpoints and groomed trails to keep people safe, said DeMorest, the snow ranger. Still, she wants Vail Pass to provide a true backcountry experience, and not start looking like a resort.

“People do come up asking where the chairlift is,” DeMorest said, “and asking where they can rent.”