Parking often lies near the heart of land-use debates, and that remains true for tensions around increasing off-highway vehicle traffic on backcountry roads near Marble that has officials looking toward a permit system to cap numbers.

During an extended work session Tuesday and Wednesday in the upper Crystal River Valley, Gunnison County’s Board of County Commissioners met with officials from the White River National Forest for a site visit to what’s essentially the trailhead where the Lead King Loop begins, at the base of Daniel’s Hill east of Beaver Lake. The intention of the visit was to scout potential locations for a lot where truck-trailers that haul in smaller motorized recreational vehicles could park, should a collaborative work group studying the issue settle on establishing a new parking area as a preferred direction.

The site visit from the commissioners followed up a letter sent to forest officials asking for “concrete steps” toward a plan that could be implemented by 2023 to limit motorized use and subsequent parking demand. 

The White River National Forest’s 2011 travel-management plan allows all types of motorized vehicles on Forest Service Roads 314 and 315, which form the loop and connect Marble with Schofield Pass and the historic settlement of Crystal. Use in Marble has exploded since that travel-management plan was approved, driven by a new breed of “side-by-side” utility-terrain vehicles that go faster and carry more passengers. Also factoring into the increase is this: Since 2018, nearby Pitkin County has enforced an OHV ban on county-managed roads, while the machines remain legal on a limited number of other road networks managed by the Forest Service in the Roaring Fork watershed. 

There is no designated parking near the Lead King Loop trailhead for the trucks and trailers needed to haul the machines. Many in Marble feel this has put the squeeze on their town, population 140, which has limited resources and infrastructure to handle the influx. Concerns about noise, dust, speeding and too much bad behavior by too many visitors are at the forefront of local politics.

The commissioners’ letter notes that the Forest Service is ultimately the entity responsible for the conditions flowing out of the Lead King Loop.

“Although many of these impacts take place outside the boundaries of the White River National Forest, they are the direct result of the absence of suitable parking and policies that do not restrict the volume of motorized vehicles on the Lead King Loop,” the letter says. It asks officials with the White River “to partner with us to identify long-term solutions such as a suitable parking area near the trailhead and a permitting system.” 

But a parking area at the base of Daniel’s Hill carries its own challenges. Kevin Warner, the district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, cautioned that there are issues with occupied mining claims in the area that could complicate the proposal. And beyond that, there are residents in the area who might be unwilling to support a new parking lot and OHV staging area in the neighborhood.

“Even there, you can’t put a parking lot in an area where it’s not going to be in reasonably close proximity to someone’s home,” Warner said.

That said, the White River has “committed to the county that we will start that discussion up again,” Warner said, referencing previous discussions in 2015 about developing a parking lot in the area that fell through,

Daniel’s Hill resident Teri Havens, who attended Wednesday’s site visit, said her read on the situation is that a proposal to develop a parking lot without a plan to limit and manage the volume of users on the Lead King Loop would be “very poorly received.”

Suzy Meredith-Orr with the Crystal River Environmental Protection Association, who was also at Wednesday’s site visit, said her impression is that commissioners are working hard to find a solution. 

“My concern is that they will do so in a way that seeks to please many and consequently will not prioritize the impacts on residents, wildlife and the environment sufficiently,” Meredith-Orr wrote in an email.

Towers that were once used as bases for cranes that hauled giant pieces of marble at the Mill Site Park in Marble on Tuesday, June 15. The property was the site of an early-20th century milling complex that finished the stone from a nearby quarry that built the Lincoln Memorial. The park’s parking area is now primarily used by OHV truck-trailers on the weekends. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

“In a manner which is consistent with …”

About a mile away, in the center of town, the greatest amount of available parking in Marble is at the main entrance to the Mill Site Park, where the remains of an early-20th century milling complex that produced the stone that made the Lincoln Memorial dot the forested landscape alongside the Crystal River. The remains include large towers of marble block that formed the bases for cranes that hauled giant pieces of stone, and pits that facilitated the cutting, sculpting and polishing of the blocks.

On busy summer weekends, the parking lot often fills to capacity with trucks and trailers associated with Lead King Loop’s OHV users. In 2018, town officials proposed charging ATV users to park there, but they backed off after receiving legal advice that it would violate the covenants of the deed restriction to which the town agreed when it assumed ownership of the property from the Small Business Administration in 1981.

That original deed includes the restriction that the land be used “solely for the operation of a public park in a manner which is consistent with the inclusion of said property in the National Register of Historic Places.” Any commercial uses are prohibited and the property could revert back to the SBA if the town fails to meet its obligations under the deed restriction.

The deed was updated in 2003 as the town and the SBA entered into an expanded set of agreements governing the use of the park. Those responsibilities include ensuring “that the historic Mill Site Park has adequate parking and access available to the public in an area in and around the real property which is designated solely for this purpose.” The parking area must be “clearly marked and maintained” by the town. The agreement further specifies that the parking shall be in the area off Third Street — which forms the beginning of Quarry Road — at the east entrance to the park. That is precisely the area where the OHV trailers are parking.

With no budget to hire a parking-enforcement officer — whom the town had hoped to fund via revenue from OHV parking — town officials say there is nothing they can do to prevent the trailers from parking there. Further, it’s preferable to funnel the trailers into one location, rather than having them parking illegally in other areas, according to Marble Mayor Ryan Vinciguerra. The town is planning to place a kiosk in Mill Site Park’s parking area that includes etiquette and education tips for OHV riders, as well as a map directing them to the Lead King Loop trails. An effort to raise a corps of volunteers who would assist in the education effort this summer is also underway.

“We are missing some of that infrastructure in town that I feel could go a long way, if we could get some good information out there,” Vinciguerra said at a Tuesday evening work session with the Gunnison commissioners.

The town remains engaged in the pursuit of amending the deed restriction and covenants that would give it more flexibility in managing the parking areas. Vinciguerra is proposing to move the park’s “main entrance” around the corner to Park Street — the main road into town — where there are a half-dozen or so diagonal parking spaces (with the possibility for more to be built) freeing up the east side of the park for ATVs.

But changing anything about the deed restriction could be a complicated process, potentially involving a Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act, which is designed to protect historic sites from adverse impacts.

At Tuesday evening’s work session, Marble Councilman Larry Good asked his county counterparts if they would support the town in trying to get the SBA to agree to changes in the deed restriction.

Commissioners were noncommittal to that, saying they would need more information and questioning how plans for ATV parking near Mill Site Park meshed with the community’s long-term vision. It was a theme that came up repeatedly through Tuesday evening’s discussion.

OHV users load up their trailers near the entrance of the Mill Site Park on Tuesday, June 15. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Working backward

The meeting, held at Marble Community Church, marked the first time that the two boards had gotten together since the Gunnison commissioners passed a resolution last month fixing a language error in a prior document that allows OHVs to use the portion of County Road 3 that connects the town to the Forest Service roads. Under pressure from residents who wanted the county to ban the machines on its road, commissioners instead established a sunset clause of Dec. 31, although they said Tuesday they would be willing to extend the allowance another year if they felt progress was being made toward the ultimate long-term solution.

The key to making that work is establishing what the community wants its future to be in terms of recreational experience, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who spoke at the Tuesday meeting.

“What is the desired future we want up here?” he asked. “Whatever it is, let’s get agreement on that and then we work backwards.”

If less motorized use is the goal, he said, a permitting system or fee structure could be brought to bear — just as White River National Forest has been doing at Vail Pass, Hanging Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs and other high-use recreation areas. 

“We have all those tools at our disposal,” Fitzwilliams said. “None of them happen overnight — they take some time.”

But he echoed a sentiment shared by others that it is important that federal, county and town officials keep working together.

John Armstrong, president of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, spoke of the recreational experience becoming so degraded by motorized overcrowding on the loop, even local OHV enthusiasts — to say nothing of hikers, bikers and equestrians — are now steering clear. It’s difficult to quantify the displaced user group, he noted.

“I don’t want to have to make a reservation three months in advance to do my wildflower walk,” Armstrong said. “But if I am going to be driving up there, that will probably be our future.”

Marble resident Daniel Szmiot — who said his first time driving the Lead King Loop was 51 years ago and his most recent trip was Monday — said that with so many new visitors in recent years, “we don’t even use the town, the roads, anything up here on the weekends.”

He added: “We let the tourists tear it up and then we go out Monday through Friday.”

He said the advent of social media had brought in hoards of people who lack understanding and respect for the local community.  

“There has got to be a new normal, and I hope it’s not laced with a lot of regulations and you have to have a special permit for this,” he said.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck also ruminated on how social media culture has changed how people are introduced to wilderness and how they interact with it.

“It’s tough because there are more people than ever that want a piece of this experience,” he said, “but they want it quick, easy and ‘I want to post it so you can see.’ It’s very different than wanting an experience and it’s internal — almost all experiences now are external. It’s an odd new normal we are dealing with.”

Mailboxes, as well as a sign asking motorists to slow down, along the side of County Road 3 as it approaches Daniel’s Hill on Tuesday, June 15. Gunnison County commissioners and the White River National Forest are examining the potential of developing a parking area for Lead King Loop users nearby. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

New road-safety analysis coming

On June 1 — the same date that Gunnison County commissioners sent their letter to the U.S. Forest Service asking for concrete steps — Warner, district ranger, announced to participants in the monthly working group conference call that he had engaged the Forest Service’s Denver-based regional office to help out with a fresh study of safety conditions on the Lead King Loop.

The road-safety analysis, which will likely be conducted in July, will look at the potential for accidents involving motorized users and other recreators on the loop. It will involve a study of road conditions and traffic counts and will result in a set of recommendations on how to improve safety, which could include a suite of potential management changes. 

The drive to launch the study came “from the public concerns that have been expressed pretty vocally more recently,” Warner said. “One of the concerns I was hearing was that because of the (OHV) use, that it was no longer safe. Well, OK, we should try to figure that out.”

Forest Service rangers, who will be patrolling the loop this summer thanks to a $10,000 contribution from the county and town, will also be doing “recreation impact monitoring,” looking for signs of environmental harm that could be attributed to recreation, including trails branching off the designated route, trash left out, and impacts from camping and human waste.

The ranger district has also been reaching out to soil scientists and wildlife experts to get ahold of the most current research involving OHV impacts.

All of this will be moving forward this summer in the hopes that gathering as much data as possible will help facilitate the future-vision conversation. 

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years now,  having to manage massive amounts of people in a small area,” Fitzwilliams said at Tuesday’s work session, referencing other high-use recreation areas in the forest. “Our experience is that if you touch something, getting common info and data we can all agree on is so important.”

This story ran in The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily on June 19.

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...