When a stakeholder group formed late last year to explore new management strategies in response to increased off-highway vehicle traffic on the Lead King Loop near Marble, many of the participants envisioned as an end game a permit system for off-highway recreational vehicles traveling the remote and scenic back country roads.  

But after multiple meetings and dozens of hours invested by the group convened to study the situation and possible solutions in depth, a consensus is emerging among that group that a permit-and-reservation system capping the use of the roads managed by the U.S. Forest Service would be too onerous a prescription. That reasoning is based on traffic levels measured on the road system last summer and the community’s expectations around access to public lands.

Instead, the group is exploring banning OHV-trailer parking in town, building a designated parking area near the trailhead and requiring reservations and possibly a fee to use the new lot. Other potential solutions being studied include tighter rules against excessive noise in town, improving drainage to limit the sedimentation of streams adjacent to the backcountry road and building a new pedestrian and biking trail paralleling the section of road most frequently traveled. The group is expected to finalize recommendations later this month that could guide public policy in the town of Marble, Gunnison County and on the White River National Forest. 

“There are significant barriers to implementing a reservation or permitting system for recreational use of the road,” said Dr. Melanie Armstrong, the director of the Center for Public Lands at Western Colorado University, which is facilitating the stakeholder group. Speaking at a listening session held Thursday in Marble, she said that the group carried “a lot of momentum and a lot of energy around the notion of having recreation permits in place. … And through the conversations it became very evident it’s not a realistic response and we talked at length about why that is.”

The group consists of about a dozen members representing residents, government agencies, environmental groups, recreation interests and local business. It has been working to build on years of heightened concern and increasing community action as it relates to the explosion of motorized-recreation enthusiasts using Marble as their gateway into the remote backcountry road system that serves as a backdoor into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. That increasing use has raised a host of environmental and quality of life concerns for Marble-area residents.

The well-attended listening session held Thursday evening at the Marble fire station served as the most anticipated public engagement to date for the group, which has been meeting behind closed doors and whose members agreed not to discuss their proceedings with the media until after a recommendation report is finalized (minutes and meeting materials are posted online). A second, virtual listening session is planned for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. via Zoom. 

Armstrong, who is also an associate professor at Western, said at Thursday’s meeting that the stakeholder group has been working hard to formulate “consensus-based recommendations” on management strategies that have a high probability of getting the support needed from government agencies to be enacted — “to have a process that allows those actions to be taken down the road,” she said.

The work is not without controversy, according to Armstrong, and is designed to illuminate thorny issues and unanswered questions that might arise out of any particular management direction, “such that we could begin to find answers, whether by talking with experts or by vetting the public’s ideas and reactions,” Armstrong wrote in an email.

According to the group’s purpose statement: “The stakeholder group will assess the situation and conditions for controversy and make recommendations for measurable actions that meet the appropriate balance for all interests with both near- and long-term strategies.”

The meadow accessed off this road at the base of Daniels Hill near Marble could be the site of a new proposed parking area on Forest Service land. Such a proposal would require a lengthy federal NEPA review, so a stakeholder group is considering proposing an interim lot on nearby private land in the meantime. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Necessary management actions 

Last year saw an unprecedented level of cooperation and investment directed at addressing the Lead King Loop’s use challenges. Funding from Gunnison County and the town of Marble led to regular patrolling by U.S. Forest Service rangers, who according to White River National Forest recreation manager Shelly Grail did not witness much in the way of resource damage. However, “the biggest issues we saw were people ill-prepared to be traveling the road and the overall congestion of the road,” Grail wrote in an email.

That increased focus also led the Forest Service to install traffic counters at four locations around the 13-mile loop. Data gathered by those counters between July and October suggested increasing use; the data also show that the vast majority of the traffic using the road system is heading out and back to the town of Crystal, home to a privately owned ghost town, other privately owned cabins and the iconic Crystal Mill, located about 5 miles in.

But based on the way the Forest Service classifies roads, the roads that form the Lead King Loop can safely handle an annualized average of 400 vehicle trips per day. A road assessment prepared by a Forest Service transportation planning and development engineer based on the counter data says that on the average weekday last year, there were 100 vehicles on the segment of road leading to Crystal, rising to an average of about 200 each day during the weekend. The counters recorded traffic on the remainder of the loop traveling through the Lead King Basin at less than half those levels.

Peak fall colors bring peak traffic on the road, as the counters recorded over 360 vehicle trips each day on Sept. 25 and 26. The highest trafficked day of the season, with 431 vehicle trips, was Oct. 2, the second day of the Crystal Mountain Music Festival hosted by Crystal Mountain Ranch. 

“Despite the increased use, the traffic count data indicates the roads are well within the low-volume road Level of Service J,” the assessment says.

Kevin Warner, the district ranger for the Aspen Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest, said those traffic levels tell him that other management strategies — controlling parking, better education and better signage among them — should be tried first.  

“The level of use illustrated in these numbers does not indicate to me that a permit system specifically aimed at limiting the total number of vehicles on this Forest Service road system is a necessary management action at this time,” Warner wrote in an email. “I am concerned that a permit system would limit local community members’ ability to recreate on their nearby public lands, and with the low use numbers documented in traffic counts I would have a very difficult time justifying such a system.”

Indeed, for many residing in and around Marble, their chief use of Lead King Loop roads involves driving to access trailheads located along the road that lead to some of the most spectacular hikes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Their use would be restricted under a permit system just the same as tourists whose sole purpose on the loop is motorized recreation or a visit to the Crystal Mill. 

A sign on the wall at a public listening session Thursday, April 28 held by the stakeholder group studying Lead King Loop management issues. The sign lays out a multi-year strategy to deal with parking. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Parking proposal prompts resignation 

At Thursday’s listening session, Armstrong said there could be other ways to limit impacts by using reservation systems — namely, by requiring reservations to use a potential new parking area at the base of Daniels Hill. But a new parking lot is likely to generate resistance from area homeowners.  

Currently, most lead King Loop OHV users trailer their machines to Marble and park in the area located near Marble’s historic Mill Site Park, home to the ruins of an early 20th century milling complex that produced the marble that built the Lincoln Memorial. This is a problem because covenants governing the site require that parking be available for visitors to the park.

Otherwise, trailers park on the side of the road at the base of Daniels Hill, where the Lead King Loop begins, causing congestion and headaches for those who live nearby. 

Parking has been front and center in the stakeholder group’s discussions and at the last work session April 7-8, the group agreed to gather more input on the idea of proposing a new parking lot on Forest Service land near the base of Daniels Hill. Given that such a development would be subject to federal NEPA review, which could take years, the idea also includes creating interim parking on private land in the vicinity, which is owned by the same entity that owns Crystal Mountain Ranch. The new lots could be paired with a policy banning OHV trailer parking elsewhere in town, as well as a reservation system based on the parking lot’s capacity. 

Stuart Gillespie, a representative of the ranch who is a member of the stakeholder group, declined comment on the interim parking idea, citing the members’ promise not to discuss proceedings until after a final recommendation is issued. 

A Daniels Hill resident who had been participating in the stakeholder process resigned following that meeting, feeling that the parking lot plans were put forward without being adequately vetted and that other management strategies had not received the attention they deserved. 

“I believe that [the April 8] vote was careless and rushed,” Teri Havens wrote in her April 9 resignation letter, referencing a poll taken at the end of the meeting. She added that she was stepping down because she did not feel she could present the Daniels Hill parking proposal to her community in good faith. “There was never any discussion concerning the negative impacts a parking lot might have on residents. Issues such as noise, trash, potential oil and gas spills, idling engines, trespassing, increased fire risk, etc., were not considered.”

Havens also said she’s concerned that funneling OHV trailer parking east of Marble would lead to an overall increase in traffic through the town, since all the truck/trailers would be passing through town twice, and many people would still ride their OHVs back and forth to town from the parking lot, if they wanted to go visit any of Marble’s businesses after their ride. 

Armstrong said she was sad to receive Havens’ resignation, noting “how vital it is to have a voice for county residents in this process.”

She also said she regrets that Havens felt the process was rushed. 

“[I] hoped it would be noted at the end of the last meeting that we were not at an end point in the process, but working toward getting information and feedback on some specific ideas,” Armstrong wrote in an email.

She added that the parking-and-reservation strategy came after 13 hours of meetings April 7-8, when the group attempted to flesh out the details of multiple potential actions.

“As 4 p.m. on Friday [April 8] approached, the group faced the restrictions of time as they explored the complexities of parking, reservations and education,” Armstrong wrote in an email. “I do not doubt that after that long work session, many felt there were numerous questions that had come up, which was an important part of the process. The intent has always been to continue to answer those questions, working together as a group, gathering input from the public through the listening session, and from constituents through their representatives.”

Armstrong said the feedback gathered at Thursday’s meeting was helpful.

“For me personally, I heard many people say that they recognize how complex this issue is, how long the community has been working to address some of the concerns brought before the group, and how important it is to take some sort of action,” she wrote. “The people who spoke to me expressed mostly thoughts on the process, their desire to have their concerns noted, and hope that something will happen as an outcome of this process.”

This story ran in the May 2 edition of The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

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...