Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday passed a resolution authorizing the continued use of both all-terrain and off-highway vehicles on a segment of road approaching Lead King Loop, while reaffirming the importance of a multilateral process building toward a permit or reservation system that would limit motorized recreation in the backcountry near the town of Marble.

While the commissioners did not enact a de facto moratorium on OHV, ATV and UTV traffic on the 1.5-mile segment of county road leading to the popular loop on Forest Service land — as some area residents were hoping — the discovery three weeks ago of a language error in a county resolution governing the road served to elevate the issue, according to a woman who has been advocating for better management of surging motorized traffic on Lead King Loop.

Lead King Loop is 13 miles of rugged road running through 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 — a hamlet in the upper Crystal River Valley 28 miles from Carbondale — using Gunnison County Road 3, which runs from the town boundary up to the top of Daniel’s Hill. At that point, the road hits a junction with Forest Service roads that form the loop.

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 a portion of 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.” That description leaves a gap of approximately 0.8 of a mile to where the Forest Service’s jurisdiction actually begins.

Gunnison County commissioners this month introduced a draft resolution that would extend the exemption to the top of the hill, based on the understanding that the county’s long-standing intent has been to allow OHVs on its segment of the road, due to the fact that the machines are legal once the road enters Forest Service jurisdiction. Commissioners were inundated with comments from concerned citizens who wanted stronger action taken to limit — and, if necessary, temporarily ban — OHV traffic on the road.

At a May 4 meeting, Commissioner Liz Smith proposed sunsetting the OHV allowance on the road at the end of the year, as a way to assure citizens that a long-term solution was in the works.

“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,” Smith said at the meeting, adding that she doesn’t “want to enable a problem if we can’t get other stakeholders to really lean in to solve it.”

A provision stating that the OHV exemption shall expire at midnight on Dec. 31 was included in the resolution passed Tuesday.

Smith was credited at Tuesday’s meeting with reaching out to concerned residents. She also said she spoke with Forest Service officials and came away “heartened” that they are willing to continue working collaboratively toward an ultimate solution to the issue of overuse.

“It’s necessary to have that partnership with the Forest Service,” she said, adding that she believes based on her conversations that a permit or reservation system could be implemented within two years.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he, too, spoke with White River National Forest officials. He said he noted to them that while data collection is important to justifying a cap on motorized use on Lead King Loop, it shouldn’t have to take “years and years.” Other national forest jurisdictions have recently made “rather quick pivots,” when necessary, to deal with surging recreational use, Houck said.

Commissioner Roland Mason said the resolution gives the county, the town and the Forest Service the time to thoroughly investigate all the nuances of potential policy solutions to make sure that the best course of action is taken.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Over the past two months, Gunnison County and the town of Marble have committed funds to support increased Forest Service ranger patrols on Lead King Loop this summer, while the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office has also promised that a new deputy will be assigned to the area by August. Along with increased education directed at OHV users, officials are hoping that these interim steps will have a positive impact on the situation. They say that noise, dust and traffic on the narrow roads and damage to the landscape are prime concerns for local residents.

A video clip shot by Daniel’s Hill resident Teri Havens shows traffic on County Road 3 on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Foot in the door

Teri Havens, who lives on Daniel’s Hill, has been a leading voice calling for policy changes to limit the environmental and quality of life impacts experienced as OHV traffic has been climbing over the past decade. She said that in all that time, she had never received a call back from a Gunnison County official, but she has recently had two conversations with Smith about the matter.

“Prior to that, no one returned my calls, and honestly I don’t know if anyone would have if we hadn’t found this loophole,” Havens said.

She said the discovery of the language deficiency in the county’s OHV authorization “got our foot in the door” and forced a more serious discussion of the issue.

While acknowledging tough times ahead, she sounded an optimistic note in an email sent Monday to community members.

“With an expected record number of visitors this summer and a scarcity of parking, it could be a challenging season,” she wrote in an email to community members after the OHV issue. “However, we believe our voices have been heard, and we are optimistic that all entities will be working together toward a management plan that will benefit both the community and the wilderness in the near future.”

This story ran in the May 19 edition of The Aspen Times.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Connie Harvey Environment Desk. Curtis has also served as editor, managing editor, and reporter...