High atop the Grand Mesa in Western Colorado, where elevation and a rippling topography come together to create some of the state’s prime early-season cross-country ski terrain, logging is about to collide with recreation.
A planned timber sale near the Grand Mesa Nordic Council’s Skyway trail system will allow logging trucks to rumble over a main ski trail through late December — a time when Skyway serves as the training and playgrounds for high school and college Nordic ski teams, a handful of Olympians, and recreational skiers from a multi-state region.
“Are you kidding?” said Nordic Council Executive Director Christie Aschwanden, who took the helm of the organization this year and recently learned of the logging operation that will cut through the Nordic ski area. “The Nordic Council is not against logging, but the way this was done was not right.”
Aschwanden said the Nordic Council, which has had a permit with the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest for recreational use of about 30 miles of trails since 1990, has dealt with other neighboring logging operations in the past. But this is the first one that would interfere with skiing at a crucial time for the increasingly popular Nordic skiing area.
The Nordic Council was made aware of a possible timber sale near its trails late last year, but at the time, the hauling was to take place in off-season months for skiing so the council was not concerned. There were no bids on that contract.
This summer, the council learned that the offering of 345 acres in the Kannah Creek Timber Sale had been amended and “re-offered” to make it more attractive to loggers. The price was lowered and the hauling time to remove the lumber was changed to winter months so that it would be easier to remove the wood over frozen and snow-packed ground.
The contract allows the bidder to haul timber through the ski area until late December, but also gives the bidder access to the timber through 2026 so it potentially could impact more than just one season.
The timing for the timber removal means around 250 85,000-pound logging trucks could be cutting through the Skyway ski trail system and across the Skyway parking lot, including during the time when Skyway is normally at its busiest.
Forest Service District Ranger Bill Edwards said the agency tried to have the logging operation take place earlier or later, but the location of the logging units makes it necessary to move timber from two of the seven harvesting units in the winter, when the ground is frozen and snow-covered.
“It is time for this particular stand to be harvested,” Edwards said.
The stand of Engelmann spruce is healthy. But he said the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest is trying to aggressively manage forests on the mesa to prevent fires and beetle kill. Those particular units hadn’t been cut in about 40 years.
Aschwanden said Nordic Council members are all for keeping the forests healthy, even though some past cutting around the Nordic trails have left messy slash piles that Nordic Council members had to clean up. She said it was the way the contract for this one was done, without consulting the Nordic Council, that has her and other members fired up.
“We have never had a logging project infringe on our operation before,” she said.
She said her volunteer group has had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get access to the new contract between the Forest Service and the bidder for the timber, Montrose Forest Products. The group is still awaiting requested information about communications between the Forest Service and Montrose Forest Products.
Edwards said he believes the Nordic Council and the Forest Service have generally had a good partnership and he disagrees that the Forest Service withheld information.
“I would say that is absolutely false,” Edwards said.
He said the Forest Service has tried in many ways to accommodate cross-country skiers, but also, as a multi-use agency, must accommodate logging operations. He pointed out that Scales Lake Road — the winter ski trail that would be used as a timber haul road — was originally built for logging, as were the majority of other trails at the Skyway complex.
Nordic Council members point out that even though the trails were once logging roads, the group’s agreement with the Forest Service precludes any motorized use of the trails from Nov. 15 to April 15.
“They never talked to us about this. It was all done in the dark,” said Cameron Tyler, an attorney and the secretary of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council board.
“They have been stonewalling and honestly not acting like we have a partnership,” said Joe Ramey, past director of the Nordic Council board.
Ramey said the information about the amended contract hit the Nordic Council at a time when the board’s volunteers are preparing to clean up trails and get equipment ready for the season. The area already had a dusting of snow several weeks ago.
The council had been looking toward a season that had promised to be one of the busiest on record. Last year, with COVID restrictions, the trails were more loaded with skiers and snowshoers than longtime Nordic Council board members had ever seen. The parking lots were often full on sunny weekends. The Nordic Council doesn’t charge for trail use, so there are no firm user numbers.
Several Nordic Council board members will meet with the Forest Service Friday. Edwards said there might be some tweaks to be made to the contract to make it more agreeable to the Nordic Council.
“I absolutely understand their frustrations and concerns,” Edwards said. “It is some of the best cross-country skiing around.”