By Mark Esper
Nearly 1,000 acres of BLM land adjacent to Molas Lake Park that has been used as a snowmobile playground for decades may soon be off limits to all motorized use.
Jeffrey Christenson, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM Tres Rios field office in Dolores, said the area in question is the West Needles Contiguous Wilderness Study Area.
New guidelines for management of such WSAs were released in July last year. Christenson said Tuesday that those rules basically prohibit snowmobile traffic and require the BLM to manage the area as if it were actually a designated wilderness.
However the BLM has allowed snowmobiling to continue in the area this winter.
Christenson said the BLM staff has been working with snowmobilers to figure out what to do next.
“We’ve been diving into this issue with the (Silverton) snowmobile club since it’s come up,” Christenson said. “We’re working through them and the Colorado Snowmobile Association to figure out what we’re going to do to proceed from here.”
Christenson said the 944-acre BLM parcel above the Animas Canyon represents “a fingernail” of land that Congress has yet to release as a Wilderness Study Area adjacent to the Animas Canyon.
“Ultimately we’ve got these chunks of land where we have a congressional mandate to manage as if it were wilderness,” Christenson said.
Jim Lokey, president of the Silverton Snowmobile Club, noted that until the last year or so, the BLM land in San Juan County was managed through the Forest Service Columbine Ranger District.
That has since changed, with the BLM land in the county now managed by the BLM field office in Dolores.
“The BLM looks at things a little differently than the Forest Service does,” Lokey said.
Lokey said the popular snowmobiling area has been used by the snowmobile club for at least 20 years.
“We go back as far as the winter of 1992-93 with our grooming permits in the area,” Lokey said. And he said two snowmobile tour vendors operate in the area on BLM permits as well as the Durango Dog Ranch dogsled outfitters.
The area represents only a small portion of the 104 miles of trails the snowmobile club maintains. But Lokey said it’s a very popular area.
“It’s a big family riding park for the snowmobile club,” Lokey said.
Lokey said that “everything east of the town property (Molas Lake Park) is in question.”
Lokey said the snowmobile club’s 5-year permit to groom trails in the area is coming up for renewal, but “the BLM says it needs to be released from Congress. We may have to go back to our congressman.”
But Lokey also asserted that it is not entirely clear if the area in question is indeed a wilderness study area.
“It seems to us that the area in question was never considered to be a Wilderness Study Area in the first place,” Lokey said, citing Forest Service and BLM documents.
However Christenson disputed Lokey’s claim, saying the BLM land is clearly a WSA. The Forest Service for years has managed it as nonmotorized in the summer, but allowed snowmobiling in winter.
Christenson also said that if snowmobile trails in the area followed established roads they might be very well be permissible, but in this case there are no established roads for the snowmobile trails to follow.
“The rules have changed,” Lokey said. “But they’re allowing us to continue operations this year until we can work this out.”
San Juan County commissioners plan to set up a meeting with BLM officials to discuss the matter.
“What we’re doing is working to clarify the future and what the status of that land is, precisely,” said County Commissioner Pete McKay.
McKay said he has requested that the BLM provide a timeline and supporting documentation on the wilderness study area and its management criteria, going back to at least 1976.
“It’s a very critical part of the recreation up at Molas and we’ve been using it for many years,” said County Board Chairman Ernie Kuhlman.
County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said losing snowmobiling in the area could have a “huge” negative impact on Silverton’s economy.
County Administrator Willy Tookey said the county needs to make sure the issue gets resolved before next winter.
And if indeed it requires Congressional action to release the BLM land, officials worried about how long that process could take.
“If we don’t push them (the BLM) as hard as we can we might lose a season out there,” Tookey said. “It’s one of the few economic drivers we’ve got going in the winter.”
“It is going to be a tough issue,” Christenson acknowledged. “We’re trying to ease into it. We need to work through this together.”