MARBLE — This small, remote outpost of Gunnison County near the headwaters of the Crystal River has long been left to its own devices.

Marble, a sleepy hamlet, is home to roughly 130 people, many of them retirees and other people who moved here for the peace and quiet. There is no cell service, Wi-Fi is available at just two locations and only one street is paved. The tourism association’s motto is “Colorado like it used to be” — and that’s how most people in Marble like it.

But over the past few years, an influx of visitors driving motorized off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, has brought crowds and conflicts. Residents say their quality of life is being negatively impacted and public lands are being damaged by visitors who use the town as a launching pad for Lead King Loop.

A newly formed Lead King Loop working group and town officials are taking steps toward addressing these problems, which residents say have been steadily growing in recent years.

Lead King Loop, a rugged, 13-mile dirt road, circumnavigates Sheep Mountain and parallels the Crystal River before climbing into wildflower-strewn Lead King Basin. The loop’s increasing popularity has brought a laundry list of overuse issues to Marble, Crystal and surrounding public lands. Residents complain about near-constant noise and dust kicked up by the OHVs; visitors who speed on Marble’s dirt roads and ignore stop signs; parking issues; human waste; and damage to fragile alpine ecosystems.

Such impacts are causing many here to voice this refrain: Lead King Loop is being loved to death.

“The motorized visitors — it’s becoming intolerable in terms of the numbers,” said Manette Anderson, a retired teacher from Glenwood Springs who spends summers in Crystal. Her home, known as the Tays House, is on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties.

Anderson, a member of the ad hoc working group, positions a sprinkler on the road in front of her house to try to keep the dust down. “The impacts are noise, dust, commotion,” she said. “At the mill, there can be bad behavior, and we have had a lot of that. There are more and more opportunities for issues around safety.”

The working group, led by the Town of Marble, includes representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and Gunnison County and local residents. Marble is funding Western Colorado University graduate student Corrine Truesdell, who will work closely with the group to study the Lead King Loop issues and come up with recreation-management recommendations. Potential solutions could include a management plan and eventual permitting or shuttle systems. First, though, come public meetings and information gathering.

“I look at it as an effort to save the Lead King Loop, really,” said Ron Leach, Marble town administrator and clerk. “There is no regulation happening up there at all right now. … If somebody doesn’t start looking at this and doing some planning, it’s just going to get trashed. I look at it as ‘Save the Loop.’ That could be our motto.”

The historic Crystal Mill, just outside the settlement of Crystal, is a major attraction for sightseers. The Town of Marble has established a Lead King Loop working group to study the impacts of increased motorized recreation on the loop. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Concerns in Crystal
Crystal is sometimes referred to as a ghost town, but six miles into Lead King Loop, the settlement is still very much inhabited. A handful of summer residents have been spending that season in Crystal their whole lives. In Roger Neal’s case, all his 71 years. Their homes, though refurbished, were built in the 1880s, when the mining camp was established, and have housed their families for generations.

Residents say heavy traffic makes navigation of the six-mile section of the rocky, one-lane road between Crystal and Marble last more than an hour. Last summer, Neal and his wife, Bonnie — with assistance from a trail counter provided by Gunnison County — began tracking the numbers and types of vehicles passing their house.

“The numbers were astronomical,” said Marlene Crosby, director of Gunnison County Public Works and the county representative on the working group. “I knew the issues because I go up there at least once a year, but the numbers they came up with blew me away.”

The Neals’ biggest problem is speeders on the road.

“If people came up here and went like 5 miles per hour through town, we wouldn’t have the dust, we wouldn’t have the noise and we probably wouldn’t even notice them,” Roger Neal said.

A big part of what draws sightseers to Crystal is the historic Crystal Mill. Idyllically perched on the banks of the Crystal River, the site is said to be one of the most photographed in Colorado. Christopher Cox and his company Treasure Mountain Ranch own the mill and much of the surrounding property. His company Crystal Mountain Ranch manages the property, which lately has grown to include staffing the site daily. For $10 and a signed waiver, visitors can scramble down the riverbank for a closer photo-op.

“The last four years have been like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Cox said. “We are being overrun. My quick-fix solution is having to police it and put up a fence.”

Crystal resident Roger Neal has spent all of his 71 summers in the tiny hamlet. Neal says traffic speeding past his house has become a problem in recent years. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Recreation management
The story of Lead King Loop is one that has played out before on the Western Slope as towns begin to see outdoor recreation as the key to a booming economy. The increased use of trails, public lands and open space brings challenges that governments and agencies typically remedy with regulations, permitting systems and management plans.

Although trucks from Colorado Stone Quarries loaded with huge slabs of nearly pure-white marble continue to rumble down County Road 3, the Town of Marble is shifting to a tourism-based economy. The town is now grappling with challenges that nearby areas, including Aspen, began dealing with decades ago.

Over the past few years, the White River National Forest has addressed overcrowding at popular locations by implementing permitting systems. Permits are now required for overnight stays at Conundrum Hot Springs, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and day hikes to Hanging Lake, in Glenwood Canyon. The Forest Service will also soon require permits for overnight backpackers at Capitol Lake, Snowmass Lake and Four Pass Loop.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer acknowledges that overuse on Lead King Loop, which sits entirely on national forest land, is a problem. But, she said, the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to really tackle the issue, especially since staffers are already busy with other high-use areas near Aspen such as Lincoln Creek and Maroon Bells. 

“I definitely empathize with the Town of Marble,” Schroyer said. “(There has been) tremendous growth in people on OHVs that recreate on that loop, and they all come through Marble. It helps the economy, but it’s a huge impact.”

Western Colorado University graduate student Corinne Truesdell, left, and town of Marble Mayor Ryan Vinciguerra talk about how to find balance to make Lead King Loop use sustainable. The town and Truesdell are spearheading the Lead King Loop Working Group to study how to manage the increase in motorized recreation. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Finding balance
A second commonly heard refrain in the area is there’s a need to find a balance. In general, local residents welcome visitors and say they completely understand why people want to experience the backcountry beauty of the loop. In fact, many residents are OHV enthusiasts themselves. But they also say there should be enforceable rules.

Nine-year Marble resident Ryan Vinciguerra occupies a position at the center of this balancing act. Not only is Vinciguerra the owner of the only restaurant in Marble, Slow Groovin’ BBQ, he’s also the town’s mayor. His restaurant, which sits at the corner of First and Main streets, is often packed with visitors, many of them OHV users. But Vinciguerra’s constituents are also pleading with him to do something about the disruption that these visitors bring.

Vinciguerra sees Marble as the gateway to Lead King Loop, much like the towns on the outskirts of national parks. The problem, as he sees it, is Marble’s lack of infrastructure to accommodate the crowds. His challenge is to find a way to do that while preserving the character of the town and the loop.

“We moved here for our surroundings and for the loop,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, so to preserve that is the biggest goal. We are looking to put the public first in the Town of Marble and looking to control and improve some of the transformation that’s taking place. You’ve got to have management, so that’s what we are trying to tackle.”

Schroyer said she sees no reason why Lead King Loop couldn’t implement a permit system. But the process is a lengthy one. Ten years of data collection and analysis went into the eventual permitting of Conundrum. The Forest Service has no data yet on Lead King Loop.

“Before we would be able to do something like that, we would have to collect a tremendous amount of data and see where the capacity is on the Lead King Loop,” Schroyer said. “It’s a balancing act we are always doing with public-lands management.”

While Truesdell and the Lead King Loop working group get going on a plan, some residents are quietly celebrating a temporary reprieve from the summer traffic. A loop section as well as Schofield Pass, which connects Marble with Crested Butte, are still impassible to vehicles because of snow and downed trees from last winter’s historic avalanches.

Anderson and Cox are optimistic that this iteration of the working group is poised to find a viable solution. As Marble tries to define what its future should look like, Truesdell hopes her work on Lead King Loop will be a jumping-off point for the town.

“Figuring out how to manage the Lead King Loop,” she said, “will help the town figure out the rest of the town’s issues.”

This story won a 2019 Colorado Press Association first place award for best environment reporting.

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Heather Sackett

Heather Sackett

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...