Friday’s opening of a popular snowmobile trail has alleviated most of the immediate pressure put on Rocky Mountain National Park by locals who’ve felt left out in the cold by the closure.
However, as Ranger Jeri Piller addressed Grand Lake trustees on Monday, she offered that it’s only a matter of time before the trail sees a later-than-desired opening, as she defended the park’s trail management decisions and framed this year as a chance to plan for the future.
The North Supply Access Trail connects Grand Lake to a network of snowmobile trails in Arapaho National Forest. Rocky Mountain National Park manages a 2 mile section of the trail, which cuts through the southwest corner of the park.
As she addressed town leaders Monday, Piller pushed back on recent criticism levied by a number of Grand Lake locals and businesses who’ve questioned why the trail didn’t open until last week.
The reality is the trail never opens with two feet of snow, Piller said, admitting that information the park put out about the trail needing 24 inches to open was somewhat inaccurate.
As she explained, 24 inches is only what the park has identified as the “ideal” amount of snow, and with an extended forecast of cold weather, more than a foot of snow cover and other favorable factors, the trail can often open with 16-18 inches of snow.
Real time trail conditions and public safety are only two of the park’s biggest considerations, Piller said. She emphasized that park staff work the trail daily, constantly reassess its condition and make the call to open based on many different factors, not just snowfall.
“It’s really more of a big picture,” she said. “We’re not standing there with a yard stick.”
Piller said the park does see damage at lower snow levels, not just on the trail, but when snowmobilers go off trail. With 10 inches of snow on the trail, Piller said, too many drivers want to go off trail in search of deeper powder, which can damage the land, lead to snowmobilers hitting trees and even getting hurt when they have these accidents.
“If we could have opened it, we would have,” Piller said. “We’re not just being jerks, I promise.”
After Friday’s opening with what Piller estimated was 13-16 inches of snow, one snowmobiler wrecked on Saturday.
Piller acknowledged the importance the trail has on the local economy and its weight with Grand Lake recreationalists. But she said managing the trail that goes over a south-facing hill and through wetlands poses numerous challenges. The park simply can’t allow damage or create dangerous situations in which people can be hurt, Piller said.
Also, preserving the land not only helps keep Rocky Mountain National Park’s rules on snowmobiles minimal — unlike other parks where snowmobilers can be required to enlist park guides for their trips — it’s actually mandated by Congress, according to Piller.
Striking the balance between preserving the land and providing access will likely require another solution, possibly aside from the North Supply Access Trail, Piller said. She promised there will be winters with low snowfall again.
As a result, Grand Lake and park officials might have to come to hard decisions about what they can live with, and what they can’t live without, Piller told the trustees.
“If we do have to limit things on these leaner years, what works?” she asked.
Opening the trail this winter meant lowering the speed limit from 25 to 15 mph along one problematic section.
Piller said many snowmobilers enjoy the speed, but that doesn’t help snow stick, and heightened efforts to educate drivers were one suggestion. Others included exploring a temporary snow fence in specific places, limiting the days of trail use and looking for alternate routes.
In other business:
• Grand Lake Board of Trustees discussed tightening some of the town’s restrictions on short-term rentals, and town staff promised to return with more concrete proposals for consideration.
• The board appointed Judy Burke to the board, filling the remainder of Phyllis Price’s term, which is up for election in April. Price resigned from the board in November. Mayor Jim Peterson and Trustee Mickey Rourke both spoke highly of Burke, who has a long history of serving the governmental body.
• Board members passed a resolution recognizing the town’s completed water tank. Town manager John Crone described the measure as “housekeeping” while he told the board passing the resolution would help satisfy requirements of a state grant the town received to build the tank.
• The board voted to update the town’s marketing agreement with the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce to adjust a few minor items, such as when the chamber will receive payments and how often the chamber has to produce marketing reports.