The discovery of what’s being described as a language error in a 2015 Gunnison County resolution allowing off-highway vehicles (OHVs) on a portion of a county road approaching the Lead King Loop was seen as an opportunity by some Marble residents to immediately block the use of the machines that have been accessing the public lands in the area in greater numbers.

But despite what some of those residents were hoping would be a game-changer in the debate over what to do about the increasing presence of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and off-highway vehicles (OHVs) creating environmental and quality-of-life concerns, Gunnison County commissioners Tuesday were not inclined to ban the vehicles on the portion of the road the county manages, arguing that it would be counterproductive to a long-term solution that will need to involve the town of Marble and the White River National Forest. However, the board decided to wait until May 18 to vote on a controversial resolution addressing OHV access in order to add language aimed at assuring residents that a long-term solution is in the works.

The Lead King Loop is 13 miles of jeep road running through the White River National Forest, accessing the town of Crystal and the historic Crystal Mill and skirting the edge of the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. It is accessed via Marble using Gunnison County Road 3, which runs from the town boundary up to the top of Daniel’s Hill, at which point it hits a junction with Forest Service roads that form the loop.

The White River National Forest in its 2011 travel management plan designated its roads serving the loop as open to all motorized vehicles including highway-legal cars and trucks, off-highway vehicles, dirt bikes, ATVs and UTVs.

State law prohibits OHVs on county roads unless a specific section of road is exempted from that ban by the county of jurisdiction. Gunnison County in 2015 passed a resolution applying that exemption to County Road 3; however, the resolution language defined the exemption as “from the town limits at Beaver Lake to the bottom of Daniel’s Hill, a distance of approximately 0.7 of a mile.”

Another resolution passed by commissioners in 2018, which was needed to clarify what section of state law the board was providing an exemption to, carried over that language defining the exempted area as ending at the bottom of Daniel’s Hill, which leaves a gap of approximately 0.8 miles of county road still subject to the state’s OHV ban before the road reaches the Forest Service jurisdiction. However, parties involved in discussions about management of the Lead King Loop, including Forest Service representatives, current Gunnison County commissioners and the Marble town administrator said they were unaware this gap existed and that they understood the intent of the county’s policy as allowing OHV use on the road until it reaches the Forest Service boundary.

Gregory Staple, a Marble resident concerned about OHV overuse on the Lead King Loop, discovered this discrepancy in the resolution language while researching the issue. He shared his findings with stakeholders and called for Gunnison County commissioners to lift the OHV exemption on the entire section of road, rather than extending the exemption to cover all of Daniel’s Hill.

“Significantly, and it bears emphasis, that portion of CR3 which runs from the bottom of Daniel’s Hill to the top where Forest Service Roads 314 and 315 diverge was not covered by the 2018 BOCC resolution,” says an April 26 letter from Staple to Gunnison County commissioners. “Hence OHV traffic on the foregoing portion of CR3 remains strictly prohibited under state law. … Given the new legal situation … we think that the county, the town and the Forest Service should have a much easier job in managing OHVs and other motorized vehicles on CR3 and the Lead King Loop.”

Staple’s letter suggests that, in concert with an OHV ban on the county road, the Forest Service should use its “emergency authority” to close access to the loop for OHVs from the Marble side — a position the district ranger with authority over the Forest Service roads in the area said he was disinclined to take.

The letter attempts to warn Gunnison commissioners off of amending the resolution to extend the geographic reach of the exemption to the top of the hill.

“That’s a non-starter in our view,” the letter says. “It would be a political disaster for the BOCC, would blatantly disregard the views of a majority of local residents, would mock the environmental issues we all face and would undoubtedly trigger litigation from various quarters.”

This image from August shows the stunning scenery along Lead King Loop — as well as the impact of tire treads widening the road at the right. Gunnison County is debating a resolution governing OHV access on the portion of road connecting Marble to the loop, which residents say has become overcrowded with OHVs. Credit: Courtesy photo

Light at the end of the tunnel?

County commissioners considered the amended resolution extending the exemption to the top of Daniel’s Hill that Staple and other Marble residents feared at their Tuesday regular meeting, with more than 40 in attendance via Zoom.

According to Commissioner Jonathan Houck, the board chair, while a “deficiency in the language” of the 2015 and 2018 resolutions has been identified, he described that issue as “ministerial” and said the intent of the resolutions couldn’t be more clear. That intent was to allow OHVs to use County Road 3, in order to access the terrain open to them per Forest Service policy on the Lead King Loop.

The commissioners at the time were concerned that if they did not allow the county road to be open to OHVs, it would cause public safety issues, said Houck, who has been on the board since 2013. Concerns included OHV users driving their trailers hauling the machines to the Forest Service boundary and attempting to unload there, then parking illegally along Daniel’s Hill, blocking access to residents’ driveways and for emergency vehicles. Allowing OHVs to use the road is “in the best interest of the public,” according to the language of both resolutions.

The draft resolution up for consideration states that “the board desires to clarify its longstanding intent to continue to permit use of ATVs, OHVs and UTVs to the top of Daniel’s Hill.”

Commissioner Liz Smith, who was appointed to the board last summer and elected to a full term in November, said she has been trying to untangle why the resolution was drafted as it was. Her understanding is that it was thought that the Forest Service boundary began at the bottom, not the top, of Daniel’s Hill. There are often boundary nuances between jurisdictions and confusion happens “not infrequently,” she said.

Houck aired his frustration with some of the correspondence the board has received in the past week about the resolution.

“The way the resolution has been painted by some folks on the call today is that the board of county commissioners is in some way, shape or form ignoring the community and putting forward a resolution that says let’s just have a free for all with these motorized vehicles on a county road. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Houck emphasized the effort that Gunnison County — in collaboration with a work group examining Lead King Loop issues including Marble officials, the Forest Service, residents and Western Colorado University — has been applying. This has resulted in funding committed by the town and county to place a forest protection officer working for the Forest Service on the loop two days a week this summer, an outreach campaign seeking to educate OHV users on regulations and etiquette and an expanded presence in Marble by Gunnison County sheriff’s deputies. This collaborative process needs to continue, he said, with the ultimate goal of a new Forest Service management plan holding motorized use on the loop to an acceptable level.

“I am frustrated because what I’m hearing is just make that decision (banning OHVs on the county road) and be done it and we’re settled and that, to me at least, creates roadblocks and barriers to working with other partners on this such as the Forest Service and the town,” he said. “If we walk away from problem solving, the problem still exists.”

Smith said she has been torn by the issue.

“When you have all these jurisdictional entities overlapping in this very small place, you need partners to get a long-term solution,” she said.

However, she also said she hears the Marble residents who describe the onslaught they have had to endure and its negative impacts on environmental health, access for other types of recreation and overall quality of life.

“This is a really serious issue and I can’t emphasize enough … how urgent I see this problem is,” she said.

Speaking to the “crush and volume of people” using the OHVs on the loop, she said she is not sure there is any type of enforcement that can manage the situation without a different policy.

“I have deep reservations in continuing this public access without some affirmation or sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel and I think a lot of people on the call are feeling that too,” she said. Smith added that she doesn’t want to be “treading water forever” and doesn’t “want to enable a problem if we can’t get other stakeholders to really lean in to solve it.”

Smith suggested sunsetting the OHV allowance on the road at the end of the year. That language is likely to be added to the resolution to be decided May 18, though commissioners could extend the deadline by majority vote at any time.

Commissioner Roland Mason said he wants to see how enhanced education and enforcement works out this summer, suggesting that it has potential to improve the situation. The results of those efforts will be critical to informing a long-term solution, he added. Lifting the exemption on the road now would likely cause more problems in the form of illegal parking and rampant rule breaking, he said.

Kevin Warner, the district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest, which has jurisdiction over the loop, spoke during the meeting and said he wants to see the collaborative process continue, with more data collection and outreach this summer, “to see if that does some good.” The process of changing travel management regulations on the loop will require extensive outreach, including to OHV users, and he noted that there are “very few, if any frameworks” he has found where a national forest road is closed to one type of motorized use but not another.

“We manage public lands for all of the public, ” Warner said, and not to respond to the concerns of any particular subgroup that does not like a particular use.

He also said he doesn’t see a temporary, emergency closure to OHVs this summer as viable — though some Marble residents say that such a policy could be put into place. However, according to Warner, such emergency closures are used when a road is out of commission due to a flood or mudslide.

“If you are going to close it, it would have to be closed for everyone,” he said. “I don’t see that as a meaningful way to deal with the problem at this point.”

This story ran in the May 5 edition of The Aspen Times.