Work Session Shines Light On Camp Bird Road Conflict
by Samantha Wright
Mar 14, 2013 | 1885 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
'THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM' – Ouray County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller recently erected this sign along the Camp Bird Road, angering local guides and ice climbers. (Courtesy photo)
'THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM' – Ouray County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller recently erected this sign along the Camp Bird Road, angering local guides and ice climbers. (Courtesy photo)
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OURAY COUNTY – If tension has been brewing these past few weeks over the issue of conflicting user groups on County Road 361(Camp Bird Road), one would never have known it from a work session on the matter, hosted by the Ouray County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, March 12.

A diverse group of local elected officials and staff, U.S. Forest Service personnel, mining company representatives, ice climbers, 4WD tour operators, local retailers and other stakeholders were polite as could be, as they filed into the courtroom at the Ouray County Courthouse to discuss the mounting problems that have plagued the narrow, rugged mountain road, suddenly swarming with new mining traffic and ever-swelling numbers of backcountry enthusiasts.

“We must make a decision for a viable plan for the future of this road,” Commissioner Mike Fedel told the 40 or so work session attendees. But, he warned them, “We do not anticipate any final decisions being made today.”

While indeed no decisions were made, the work session did shine light on many issues surrounding the Camp Bird Road.

Ouray County Road and Bridge Supervisor Chris Miller reported that Star Mining Operations and Caldera Mineral Resources, the two mining companies that are operating along the upper reaches of the Camp Bird Road at the Revenue-Virginius and Camp Bird mines respectively, have road maintenance agreements with the county to take care of day-to-day winter maintenance above the Senator Gulch gate (beyond which the county has performed no winter maintenance since the late 1980s).

The county in turn helps out the mining companies on a minimal basis with avalanche control and clean-up, Miller said. (So far, this has only happened twice all winter.) Helitrax, a Telluride-based heli-ski company, contracts directly with the two mining companies to provide avalanche forecasting and mitigation along the Camp Bird Road as well as at other avalanche areas that loom above the mines themselves.  

In the summer, the situation flip-flops; the county takes responsibility for the majority of Camp Bird Road maintenance, with the mining companies contributing a minimal amount.

Miller stressed that there are really only a few problem areas along the upper Camp Bird Road where conflict has centered this winter. One of these is the Skylight ice climbing area, just up the road from the Senator Gulch gate. Here, ice climbers tend to venture out into the middle of the road to belay their partners, frequently blocking mine traffic.

“If we can figure it out there, we will not have a problem,” Miller said. “We just need a little more room; the road is only 18 feet wide.”

The Senator Gulch gate itself is another problem area, Miller noted. People wishing to access the backcountry beyond it frequently park their cars near the gate, blocking mine traffic and equipment.



ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

County Commissioner Lynn Padgett turned the discussion to the “elephant in the room,” namely, the new sign Miller erected at the Senator Gulch gate a few weeks ago, which seemingly sought to ban ice climbing and rock climbing along the road. “I am hoping the county can improve its process in finding ways to not single out one group,” she said.

Miller said that he crafted and erected the sign of his own volition in an effort to resolve the problems that he observed coming to a head along the road. “We had to do something,” he stressed. “I don’t care if we change the sign.”

“It seems like a simple ‘no parking or standing’ sign would work,” Padgett suggested.

Miller pointed out that there is already a ‘no parking’ sign on the gate, but that more often than not, it simply gets ignored.

John Trujillo Jr., the surface boss at the Revenue-Virginius mine, observed that even the new “no ice climbing” sign tends to go largely ignored, and has not deterred ice climbers from accessing the popular roadside terrain at Skylight.

Nevertheless, local ice climber and guide Kevin Koprek said, he would like to see the problem sign addressed in a timely fashion. “It clearly singles out a very small user group. We would like to see something different. It implies that climbing is illegal up that road.”

Miller reiterated that “that was never the intent.”

Commissioners Don Batchelder and Padgett offered two different visions for how to proceed from here, with Batchelder advising that the sign should be left in place for the time being to give the county time to “make a good decision instead of a knee-jerk reaction” and Padgett insisting that the sign should come down immediately.

“Why have a really negative ineffective sign that went up by a questionable nontransparent process?” she asked. “Take it down, and put up something that is effective.”

Just what might be effective remains to be seen.

John Trujillo Sr., Operations Manager at the Revenue-Virginius, said the signage needs to be very clear about the necessity of yielding to mine traffic whenever possible. “If a great big truck is coming along the road and meets a single Jeep, who should have to pull over?” he asked. “Posting a sign at Canyon Creek bridge that heavy truck traffic has the right of way would go a long way toward solving the problem.”



SUMMER & WINTER ACCESS

Local 4WD tour operator Brandi Ross, meanwhile, said she was concerned that a precedent of blocking motorized public access to the upper Camp Bird Road in the winter might slip into the summer season, which she said would be devastating for her business and the summer tourism economy.

“We are not the ones closing the road,” the elder Trujillo asserted. “That is the county’s call. We don’t have a problem opening the road; but if the county wants the road open for public use (for motorized access through the winter), they should take over winter maintenance.”

Yankee Boy Basin Conservation Association president Bob Olivier wondered what it would cost the county to take over winter maintenance on the upper portion of the Camp Bird Road. Miller estimated it would cost an extra $60,000-80,000 a year, not included the purchase of new equipment which would almost certainly be required.

“That’s more than I have,” he said of his cash-strapped department.

Don Fehd, a 4WD tour driver, said that while there is “all this talk of road maintenance,” he is worried about the opposite problem – “cozy arrangements between county and mines” that would result in improvements to popular 4WD roads in the area to the point where they are no longer rugged. In particular, Fehd said he was concerned about the stretch of the Imogene Pass road from the 14-level of the Camp Bird Road, where Caldera Mineral Resources’ current activity at that mine is centered, to the historic 3-level just above timberline and below Imogene Pass.

“I want you to leave it the hell alone,” Fehd said.  

“Rest assured, you are the first person who has ever asked for a rougher road in Ouray County,” Fedel dryly remarked.

Local retailer Bruce Gulde echoed Fehd’s sentiment. “Only improve the roads as much as you have to,” he pleaded. “If you make the road too nice you will get everyone up there. There will be a lot more traffic.”

Padgett wondered if having the county take over winter maintenance and opening the Camp Bird Road to the public “would be okay or a negative for (Star Mine’s) operations” at the Revenue-Virginius.

Trujillo said he didn’t see it as a big concern, as long as the traveling public yields to large trucks and heavy machinery whenever possible.

“Star Mine doesn’t have any issue with the public having access to the (county) road,” Trujillo reiterated. “It isn’t us against the public. We just want to understand what the rules are here. I don’t want the perception to be that we are shutting down the road; we didn’t shut anything down.”

(Trujillo later clarified to The Watch that while his company has neither the authority nor desire to shut down access to any county roads, he does intend to post private roads belonging to Star Mining Operations in the vicinity of Governor Basin starting this summer, to discourage public trespassing as the company conducts drilling exploration in that area.)

In the end, although plenty of issues were aired, nothing was resolved. “I feel overwhelmed with the conversation,” longtime local ice climber Michael Covington said. “Basically you’ve still got a one-way road and two-way traffic. You can’t mitigate that.”

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