That was the question posed by Commissioner Don Batchelder at Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting in Ouray.
Last winter the county had maintenance agreements with the two mining companies trying to restart mine operations up the steep canyons southwest of Ouray to plow the county road. But the freshly opened road in the heart of winter led to conflicts between recreational users, particularly ice climbers, who sometimes vied for space on the road with mine company vehicles.
“In the recreation community there is a degree of wishful thinking,” Batchelder said, “that if the county takes this over that will give them access and parking” on the narrow, constrained roadway. “Some people had the feeling that if the miners can drive up there then the public should be able to, too.”
“The real question,” said Commission Chair Mike Fedel, “is are we going to be able to afford $70-90,000 to maintain the road?”
To help with the answer, County Administrator Connie Hunt got Road and Bridge Supervisor Chris Miller on the speakerphone.
The answer, Miller said, “depends on the priority placed on it by the county. If it was an every-day, every-storm kind of plowing, we’re really not set up to do that. If it was a matter of our helping out 20 or 30 percent of the time, we could maybe do that. If we’re going to take it over and be liable for it, I’d want to do it right,” Miller said. “Shoot almost every storm, like they do on Red [Hwy 550 over Red Mountain Pass].”
“So, essentially you support the status quo?” Fedel asked.
Miller said yes. The agreement with Star Mine Operations LLC and Caldera Mineral Resources LLC expired in June, Hunt reminded the commissioners, and a new agreement, if desired, would have to be negotiated well before the snow flies again.
Batchelder agreed with Fedel that the cost to the county would likely be prohibitive. He produced a page of estimated costs, based on conversations with avalanche forecaster Jerry Roberts, with helicopter operator Helitrax, and with Miller. His estimates showed an expenditure of about $30,000 to hire a qualified avalanche forecaster, $33,600 for six helicopter mitigation missions, $80,000 in equipment, fuel and labor for the winter season incurred by Road and Bridge, plus an additional $10,000 for county coordination and monitoring, for a total cost of about $153,000.
That total could be offset by the amount spent by the mines now, a rough estimate of $58,000, which would be placed in an account to be used by the county. The mines pay for no formal forecasting and only about half the avalanche mitigation Batchelder foresaw.
But that still leaves a bill of something like $90,000 to keep the road open through the six months of winter. “I don’t think the county has the funds,” Batchelder said. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
Commissioner Lynn Padgett spoke to the conflict situation last winter when “private parties want to exclude public access to a public road.”
“No, no, no,” Batchelder countered. “There is no contemplation of denying public access. Just vehicular access. Pedestrians are another matter.”
“This needs to be absolutely clear,” Padgett said. “No agreement on private maintenance of a county road can exclude public access to that road. That’s not acceptable. What about skier access to Miller Mesa? Or Government Springs? There are maintenance agreements there, too.”
In the end commissioners opted for the status quo – new agreements with the mines to do the plowing – provided road signs and a new winter brochure make clear the responsibilities of both mine vehicles and recreationists.
“How about a kiosk up there by the gate posts?” Miller suggested. “That beats having signs posted everywhere. I’m all for that.”
County Attorney Marti Whitmore asked, “Should I move forward with new winter maintenance agreements?”
With one voice, the commissioners said yes.