The town of Marble and Gunnison County are partnering with White River National Forest to partly fund a ranger who will spend roughly two days a week this summer patrolling the area of Lead King Loop, where a surge in all-terrain-vehicle traffic has ushered in worries that quality of life and environmental health are getting run over by motorized recreation.
The ranger — also known as a forest protection officer — will have the ability to write citations for speeding, traveling off trail and littering, but they won’t have the power to arrest anyone suspected of a crime.
Also, the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office has committed to bringing on a new deputy, probably by August, who will be dedicated to the zone between Marble and Somerset — a remote area far from Gunnison, the county seat. That deputy will have a workstation in Marble where they could be accessible to the public. They will also be able to ticket vehicles and trailers parked illegally along the section of road leading up to the loop, which is managed by Gunnison County.
Such beefed-up education and enforcement represent a step toward managing a situation that Gunnison County commissioners have described as utter chaos, but most of the participants in a working group that has spent the past two years studying the issue see the increased official presence as an incremental step. Mitigating behavior is one thing, but the ultimate solution, committee participants have said, will probably lie in working with the Forest Service — which manages most of the roads that serve the loop — to implement a permit system that would limit use.
Others living in and around Marble — a hamlet with fewer than 150 residents and located near the headwaters of the Crystal River, 28 miles from Carbondale — favor an outright ban on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs) along the 13-mile Lead King Loop, which sits just outside the boundaries of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Either step would require White River National Forest to amend its travel-management plan, a process that Marble Town Administrator Ron Leach likened to “trying to turn around a battleship.”
Limiting access “is the ultimate solution,” he said. “Otherwise, the volume of OHVs will keep getting more and more, and the problems will keep getting more and more.”
But in the interest of producing something tangible for this summer, Marble has committed $3,000 and Gunnison County has committed $10,000 toward funding a forest protection officer wearing the White River National Forest uniform and patrolling the area two days a week. Marble is also working to fine-tune an education campaign and signage informing OHV riders of regulations and etiquette — for example, asking riders to resist the urge to lay on the throttle as soon as they hit the dirt road at Beaver Lake. Although riders’ arrival at that geographic point may appear to them like they are crossing into the great beyond, there is actually a residential community served by the road that would appreciate some consideration. There is also the possibility of a volunteer corps working OHV trailer-parking areas in town to spread the word.
Referencing the forest ranger, sheriff’s deputy and education campaign during a working-group conference call this month, Gunnison County Commissioner Roland Mason said: “If you put all these steps on the table at once, … it’s obviously not the full-blown solution to the bigger issue of how many people are using the loop, but it can help mitigate or stem the chaos that has happened over there in the last couple of years.”
On that call, Leach added: “It’s not perfect, but it’s a good-faith effort by the feds, the county and the town to do something to make the situation better this summer.”
Three jurisdictions have purview over different aspects of Lead King Loop. Marble is the gateway, with traffic routed through town before crossing into Gunnison County near Beaver Lake, where County Road 3 climbs Daniels Hill for 0.7 miles before entering the national forest, reaching a junction accessing Lead King Loop. Six miles from Marble, the historic Crystal Mill and Crystal townsite are major attractions, with many users heading out and back to that point. The loop can also be accessed from the Crested Butte side of the Elk Mountains via Schofield Pass.
White River National Forest’s 2011 travel-management plan deemed the Forest Service roads in the area as open to all vehicles. The roads in the area follow ancient Ute Indian trails, and there has been a decadeslong history of Jeep and OHV use in the area.
OHV technology began to evolve shortly after the travel-management plan: The so-called “side-by-sides,” which can accommodate up to four or even six people, grew in popularity and the machines became more lightweight and powerful. Partly in response to this, the state of Colorado began enforcing a law that banned OHVs from county public roads, unless a county explicitly exempted a section of road from the ban. Pitkin County went along with the ban, excluding vehicles without license plates from its network of roads, including popular destinations on Aspen Mountain and Richmond Ridge.
Due to the status of Lead King Loop as being open to all vehicles under Forest Service policy, which was not affected by the state law, Gunnison County decided in 2015 that its short section of county road accessing the loop should be exempt from the OHV ban. The town of Marble also set policy allowing OHVs on town streets.
Since then, tourism has only increased in the upper Crystal River Valley. And as with nearly everywhere else featuring outstanding outdoor recreation, the pandemic’s limits on indoor congregate activities brought more people out to play.
Pointing to those escalating impacts, some people in Marble have been calling either for Gunnison County to lift the exemption from the OHV ban from its section of the road or for the town to ban OHVs from its streets, but those positions have failed to gain support from the Marble Board of Trustees. Of primary concern is that doing so would have unintended consequences, pushing the OHV traffic that would come anyway into even more untenable circumstances.
Marble Trustee Emma Bielski, in a joint work session on Tuesday with Gunnison County commissioners, said that whenever she hears a suggestion that the town or county should act unilaterally on the OHV issue, she responds that “this is a stakeholder process.”
She added: “Burning bridges, setting things on fire is not the best way to get things done.”
County Commissioner Liz Smith expressed a similar sentiment, sharing the adage that every complex problem has a solution that is simple, direct and wrong.
Commissioner Jonathan Houck encouraged Marble trustees to continue the collaborative approach while trying to reach consensus on a desired outcome for the loop.
“If everyone gets to the point where they are rowing in the same direction, that’s where the Forest Service pays attention,” he said.
Quantifying impacts, understanding social dynamics
The number of people and their associated impacts have increased, but White River National Forest Recreation Manager Shelly Grail emphasized that a step as significant as amending the travel-management plan or implementing a permit system can’t happen without reams of data to support the case that there is a problem to be solved, as well as cooperation across the jurisdictions.
Years and years of data — documenting trash left behind, landscapes scoured to create new campsites and a proliferation of unburied human waste — were required before the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District implemented a permit system for overnight hikers heading to Conundrum Hot Springs. A similar permit system for backpackers on Four Pass Loop is expected to launch in the coming years .
“We couldn’t just, out of our hats, say, ‘OK, it’s time for permit system in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness,’” Grail said on this month’s conference call. “You have to be deliberate with data collection and tell a story” that justifies the management policy.
In a later interview, Grail said the town of Marble and Gunnison County would have to be on board for the Forest Service to amend the travel-management plan.
Seeking to create a baseline for collecting that data and understanding the issues in play, the working group partnered with Western Colorado University’s Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) program and graduate student Corinne Truesdell, who spent much of 2020 researching the issues, conducting stakeholder-outreach sessions and focus groups, and surveying loop users both in the field and via questionnaires sent to off-road clubs.
Truesdell’s convening report, released in March, follows the principles of “ethnographic observation,” which she describes as “a method used to identify the cultural and socioeconomic factors that inform policy decisions.” She found broad-based concern among residents of the communities surrounding the loop about “degraded quality of life” — which encompasses social and environmental factors — related to the increasing number of visitors, “the large majority of whom are perceived to be motorized users,” the report says. Concerns include emissions, dust, noise, human waste, erosion, wildlife chased away, and illegal parking and trespassing in town.
“All these impacts create dynamics of conflict, tension and distrust between residents and visitors, between various motorized and non-motorized user groups on the Lead King Loop, and between residents and loop users and management and enforcement agencies,” the report says.
Residents tend to fall on a spectrum between wanting to uphold the historically unregulated culture of the valley and seeking an OHV ban. However, the report says, “one widely shared perspective was the desire to find balance between these two opposing perspectives and plan for projected tourist, commercial and residential growth to control adverse impacts to ecological and cultural values that act as a draw for such users, perhaps remaining on the conservative side to preserve the area as a snapshot of intact Colorado history.”
When looking at the users surveyed on the loop, the report found that roughly half are from Roaring Fork Valley-area communities, “indicating that visitors to the loop perceive themselves to be from the valley or a member of the community through their family history.”
Truesdell also found that OHV riders tend to travel in groups of at least four and that “despite the adverse impacts of motorized recreation, such riders tend to exhibit a pro-environmental attitude in their desired experiences, settings and ancillary activities.”
The report suggests that education and messaging combine to home in on the perceived localness and environmental bent of loop users.
“Outdoor recreators of all kinds are more likely to comply with rules and regulations when … management and education strategies are made to protect the recreation for, rather than from, the public,” the report says.
Truesdell has completed her graduate coursework and has moved on, but Melanie Armstrong, a professor with Western Colorado’s MEM program, said the university is in conversation with the town of Marble about placing another graduate student with the working group to continue the research and data collection.
“In the School of Environment and Sustainability, students learn about ‘wicked problems,’ which are complex, intractable, cannot be solved, and at their cores are about human values,” Armstrong wrote in an email. “And while information alone won’t resolve recreation dilemmas, research such as Corinne’s can provide common ground for those values conversations and can help increase everyone’s understanding of the issue at hand.”
Grail, with the Forest Service, said that as soon as another student is on board to study the loop, she would meet with them to discuss what data ought to be collected and how.
Trail counters vandalized
A key metric to understanding the issue would be the number of daily users of the loop. In 2018, Gunnison County’s public-works department supplied two “trail counters” to Crystal residents who were seeking help with dust kicked up by OHVs.
Marlene Crosby, the county’s public-works director, said the numbers were much higher than she had anticipated, although she did not have access to the data in an interview on Wednesday.
However, both counters were destroyed by vandalism, Crosby said.
The county has purchased new devices that will be installed this summer, but Crosby said they would keep the precise location of the counters under wraps in hopes of deterring bad actors from trying to take them out again.
This story ran in the April 17 edition of The Aspen Times.