TELLURIDE – Public outcry at recent local government meetings has sparked some governmental officials to ask for further explanation of the decision by the Telluride Ski Area and U.S. Forest Service to prohibit hiking and skiing within the ski area boundaries after the ski area closes for the season in April and just before it opens in November.
On April 3, citing “growing concern for the public’s safety,” the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. announced that hiking or skiing is prohibited within the ski area boundaries from April 9 to 30 and from Nov. 5 to opening day of the 2012-2013 winter ski season. Penalties for violating the policy include the loss of access to the ski area for a minimum of one year and federal fines.
The U.S. Forest Service already had a policy in place through the 2002 Uncompahgre Travel Plan for the Telluride Ski Resort that prohibits motorized vehicle use within the ski area while its closed, including snowmobiles, ATVs, motorcycles and automobiles. (This excludes official Telski equipment.)
For some residents, adding hiking and skiing to the list of prohibited uses on public lands went too far and many question how the decision was made without input from the public.
Longtime Telluride resident Mark Frankmann expressed his concerns to the Telluride Town Council on April 24 and to the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners on April 25. In a letter given to both governmental entities, Frankmann stated that he understands the reasons for prohibiting motorized vehicle use during the offseason, as well as closing certain sections of the mountain off during off season avalanche control work. But to close the area within the ski area boundary to skiers and hikers for nearly a month before and after the ski area opens and closes goes too far and is unwarranted, he said.
“In my 35 years of living in Telluride and ski touring on the ski area during spring and fall offseason, I can't recall one single accident requiring rescue or anything else,” Frankmann stated in his letter. “The facts and history just don't support the need for such a sweeping action that will so severely impact the public’s ability to recreate on their national forest lands.
“Enforcing the existing, but never enforced in the past, ban on private motorized equipment will go a long way towards alleviating the situation,” he continued. “The complete ban of all persons who wish to ski tour, hike, walk their dog and otherwise enjoy the large area of National Forest that adjoins their home is not justified.”
Frankmann went on to tell the Telluride Town Council that he called around to other ski areas in the state to see if they had similar restrictions to hikers and skiers and he found none. Hearing Frankmann’s concerns, members of council directed staff to draft a letter to Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza and Telski Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley expressing council’s concerns on the matter as well. That letter was drafted, approved by council (signed by Mayor Stu Fraser) and sent on Thursday, April 26.
“This public land is enjoyed by many of our residents and visitors during the offseason,” council’s letter states. “The unprecedented decision to now close these lands was apparently premised upon safety concerns. The town is not aware of any major safety incidents leading to this decision and questions the actions being taken as a means to address perceived safety issues.”
In closing, the letter states that while council questions the decision to close public lands the letter is intended to open a dialogue between the town, the U.S. Forest Service and Telski to “discuss the politics underlying these actions and the processes by which they have been rendered.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Schutza said she was approached by Telski officials, asking for an extension of their operating season. By extending the operating season, public use of the land within the ski area boundaries could be prohibited while ski area employees shut the mountain down for the season.
“The bottom line is public and worker safety,” Schutza said. She said she has the sole authority to make this decision. “Telski made the request to extend the operating season for safety reasons and I thought that was reasonable and made that change through their operating plan. My bottom line is public safety and worker safety. That is a requirement and is not discretionary.”
Even though snowmobile use had been prohibited in the past, Riley said use within the ski area permit area had gotten out of control in recent years, especially in the spring of 2011 when the mountain received a lot of snow. Snowmobiles were being used to shuttle people up and down in areas that had not been controlled for avalanches, causing a situation that was not only be dangerous to those skiing in the area but to workers below.
“Skiing was causing the same concern,” Riley said. “In the spring, our lift maintenance people and our ski patrol were out removing signs, powder pads and inventorying equipment and they were concerned that skiers were above them in areas that hadn’t been controlled. There was a lot of snow last spring and it was definitely dangerous.”
Riley cited the in-bounds avalanche death last fall of a skier at Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, which occurred before the ski area opened. This is a situation he would like to avoid in Telluride.
“Its hard for folks to get their heads around it until you have a death or a search and rescue,” he said. “People need to understand we don't want to wait for that to happen. In both the fall and the winter, we need a period of time where we can safely set up and get ready for the ski season.”
Having said that, Riley agreed to reconsider the time Telski allocates to set up and tear down the mountain each ski season.
“I think I asked for more time than we needed in hindsight. I don’t think we need a whole month to do it all and I’ll be taking a look at that for next spring,” he said.
It is unclear if and when Schutza and Riley will discuss the closure with the Telluride Town Council. The commissioners planned to discuss the situation with Schutza at their regular meeting in Norwood on May 30.
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