Forest Service Seeks Solutions to Camp Bird Road Conundrum

Ouray Silver Mines CEO Brian Briggs (far right) said he would consider operating a shuttle for both miners and backcountry enthusiasts to access the upper reaches of the Camp Bird Road at a work session last week hosted by USFS Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker (next to Briggs). (Photo by Samantha Wright)

Ouray Silver Mines CEO Brian Briggs (far right) said he would consider operating a shuttle for both miners and backcountry enthusiasts to access the upper reaches of the Camp Bird Road at a work session last week hosted by USFS Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker (next to Briggs). (Photo by Samantha Wright)

By Samantha Wright | Ouray

There are two things that terrify Clint Fletcher about the Camp Bird Road.

One is avalanches. As a representative of Ouray Silver Mines, the new operator of the Revenue Mine that perches near the upper terminus of the storied mountain road, he has seen some doozies up there this winter.

The other thing that terrifies him is more of a summertime phenomenon. “I cringe every time I see a 12 year old on an ATV come around the corner that they are going to go off into the canyon or meet up with another truck,” he said.

Fletcher was part of a disparate group including mine operators, backcountry guides, 4WD tour operators and event permittees who crowded into the Ridgway Library conference room last Monday, Feb. 29, to brainstorm solutions to the Camp Bird Road conundrum. The session hosted by the U.S. Forest Service’s Ouray Ranger District.

Although wintertime conflicts between user groups have dominated recent discussions, stakeholders agreed the season of snow isn’t the only time that there is trouble brewing along the Camp Bird Road (also known as County Road 361 and Forest Road 853). Summer comes with its own set of problems, as Fletcher and others attested.

But no matter the time of year, the fundamental issue seems to be that the road is simply seeing a lot more use. People of all stripes are flocking to the high country.

“Ice climbers are going to come and climb. Skiers are going to ski. We know this is going to happen. We will have Jeeps and ATVs. How can we solve this so everyone can win?” Fletcher asked. “There has got to be a way.”

Wintertime Woes

Stakeholders agreed that the overall winter access issue of who gets to drive on the upper Camp Bird Road was too thorny to address in one sitting. Instead, they focused on a more specific problem: how to resolve the parking fiasco at the Senator Gulch gate, where both miners and backcountry enthusiasts vie for limited parking spots. Once the lot fills up, backcountry enthusiasts tend to park alongside the narrow road, creating a safety hazard for mining traffic, before hiking up the road beyond the gate to reach the areas where they like to recreate.

Lately the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office has been trying to instill some law and order on the situation by slapping parking tickets on cars that are parked illegally alongside the road. Kelly Ryan, a local backcountry enthusiast representing the San Juan Hut System, suggested a better solution would be to create a new parking area for the mine operators on the uphill side of the gate so they don’t have to vie for parking space with the ice climbing and skiing crowd. The only problem with that solution, Fletcher said, is that the mine operators would then be moving their equipment into an avalanche zone.

Another potential solution that was discussed would be to plow out a new parking area further down the road. The closest viable option would be at the Thistledown camping area, almost a full mile’s hike from the popular Skylight ice climbing area along the upper Camp Bird Road.

Ryan also reiterated a suggestion that was made at a recent Ouray Board of County Commissioners listening session on the Camp Bird Road – to open up the Senator Gulch gate earlier in the spring with conditions-dependent closures, so that backcountry skiers can drive all the way up to Yankee Boy Basin to more easily access spring skiing terrain. 

“It would be ludicrous in the winter,” because of the avalanche danger, she acknowledged, “but there becomes a point when the snow conditions are stable and the road is as dry as in the summer, and yet the gate is still closed.”

Fletcher said it’s not up to the mine operators to determine whether to open the gate earlier in the spring. The mine’s winter maintenance agreement with Ouray County specifically dictates that the gate stay closed from November through May, with access beyond the gate reserved exclusively for mining traffic. 

“It’s not our call,” he said. But with both the county and the Forest Service claiming jurisdiction over the Camp Bird Road, it remains unclear just whose call it is.

Meanwhile, the mine operators in the room stressed that their greatest concern is about notifying ice climbers and skiers of avalanche danger when the mine is conducting mitigation.

“We welcome the ice climbers but it’s a scary thought when we are doing avalanche control,” Fletcher said. “We post signs the day before, but we get up there and there is still a parking lot full of people. We don’t want to bury anybody in an avalanche.”

One potential solution to this problem would be to place a registration box at the gate and ask backcountry users to sign in before heading up the road, so that the mine operators would at least be more aware of who is in the area when it comes time to conduct mitigation. Another option would be to offer some sort of a shuttle service along the Camp Bird Road for backcountry enthusiasts. While outfitters and tour operators haven’t seemed too interested in getting into the shuttle business, Ouray Silver Mines, Inc. Chief Operating Officer Brian Briggs said his company might actually consider it.

“We are going to run those shuttles anyway,” to transport employees to and from the mine, Briggs said. “So if there is a way to work it out that is cost neutral and it solves our issues, there are some solutions and synergies.”

One last solution would be to move the winter road closure gate down to Thistledown, thus preventing the public from accessing the Senator Gulch parking area. This would require the agreement of both Ouray County and Forest Service officials.

No matter which winter travel solutions are ultimately implemented along the Camp Bird Road, the biggest challenge will be delivering that information to the public. More signage may be required to achieve this goal. Ryan suggested posting signs along the road that encourages backcountry enthusiasts to carpool from Thistledown up to Senator Gulch. Ouray Ranger District Outfitter and Guide Program Coordinator Caleb Valdez also proposed that the Forest Service could build an information kiosk at Senator Gulch, instructing motorists to park at Thistledown if the Senator Gulch parking area is full, and offering flyers about ice climbing and backcountry skiing in the area, along with warnings about the heavy mining traffic on the road.

Map of area in question (Courtesy image)

Map of area in question (Courtesy image)

The Problem of ATVs

Regular summertime users of the Camp Bird Road have noted a huge influx of ATVs over the past few years, some of them going way too fast, with no consistent law enforcement in the area other than a lone part-time USFS-employed Alpine Ranger who doesn’t have the authority to issue speeding tickets – a moot point since ATVs are unlicensed vehicles, and their operators (even those who are underage) can’t even be ticketed.

“That’s the scariest thing,” said one local Jeep tour operator. “I have almost been hit many times. There is nothing worse than a 12 year old trying to keep up with his dad on a dangerous road. There’s more and more of them up there. We welcome the tourism. But at the end of the day if you don’t get control, someone is going to get killed.”

Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel pointed out that OHV legislation currently making its way through the state house could give Ouray County a better shot at accessing grant funding to bolster the Alpine Ranger program and more effectively tackle the ATV problem.

But ATVs aren’t the only ones that have a habit of going way too fast along the Camp Bird Road.  When the Revenue Mine and Camp Bird Mine first reopened several years ago, miners were notorious for speeding on the road. The mine operators themselves cracked down on the problem. “We bought our own radar and it helped,” Fletcher said. “People have slowed down. That’s what we did for our group.”

The sheer volume of traffic along the road exacerbates the problem, leading some to suggest that the Forest Service and/or county should restrict access in some way, or more actively maintain other, less popular 4WD roads in the area to destinations such as Spirit Gulch and Richmond Pass in order to reduce congestion. 

Valdez brought up another big problem – overuse of the public restroom facilities in Yankee Boy Basin. He urged tour operators to encourage their passengers to use the facilities in town before heading out into the high alpine area.

“Yankee Boy Basin is pretty bad,” he said. “I don’t have a solution. Those toilets are supposed to be composting, but it doesn’t work.”

Discussion turned to how to raise more money to solve the problem, but no easy answers were to be had. A federal fee demo program that was intended to help fund public lands management at the turn of the century failed miserably on a local level when 4WD enthusiasts bristled at the notion of paying a $5 fee to drive into Yankee Boy Basin. That opposition coalesced into the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which went on to become a national movement against the Forest Service’s doomed Fee Demo program.

R.S. 2477 Rears Its Head

Even as user groups struggle to find solutions for the myriad problems vexing the Camp Bird Road, the underlying issue of who owns the road and who has decision-making authority over it remains unclear, as both Ouray County and the USFS host parallel discussions on the matter. 

U.S. Forest Service Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker addressed the issue head-on. “The Forest Service’s official position on this is that we do own that road,” she said.

National Forests, she explained, are units of federally-owned land which have been withdrawn and reserved from the federally-owned public domain land and, as such, are not subject to state and county government laws, regulations, ordinances and codes. The USFS asserts that roads on National Forest System land are thus proprietary and under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service unless they have been otherwise designated through a specific process.

The confusion over jurisdiction, Randall-Parker explained, stems back to a revised statute in the Mining Law of 1866 called R.S. 2477. “You will sometimes hear the county claiming that they have ownership of the road because of this statute,” she said.

From its enactment in 1866 until its repeal in 1976 with the introduction of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, this obscure statute quietly granted the right-of-way across unreserved federal public lands for the construction of highways. Since its repeal, the statute has become a flashpoint in the ongoing battle for control over western public lands and the resources they harbor.

It’s complicated. It’s messy. If indeed it went through the courts and a federal judge said this is a county road, then the county would have ownership of the road, but until the county goes through that process, as a federal servant to all of you, I can’t just say it’s a county road.U.S. Forest Service Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker

The Forest Service contends that under R.S. 2477, counties or states must go through the federal courts in order to assert ownership of a historic right of way that passes through Forest Service land. “What the county would need to do is to file a title claim against the United States which would then go into federal court and a judge would look at the historical evidence of when the road was created,” Randall-Parker said.

Since the forest reserve that was established on the Uncompahgre was enacted in 1907, the county would have to show not only that the Camp Bird Road existed prior to that time, but that the county had actually laid claim to ownership of it prior to that time.

“It’s complicated. It’s messy,” Randall-Parker acknowledged. But, she maintained, it is up to the county to initiate such a court proceeding. “If indeed it went through the courts and a federal judge said this is a county road, then the county would have ownership of the road,” she said. “But until the county goes through that process, as a federal servant to all of you, I can’t just say it’s a county road.”

This logic did little to sway some in the room. Ouray native Rick Trujillo countered that the road from Ouray to the town of Sneffels near the Camp Bird Mine was commissioned, built and paid for by the county, sometime in the late 1870s or 1880s. “There was no Forest Service at that time,” he pointed out.

Ouray geological and mining consultant Bob Larson, a former Ouray County Commissioner who was attending the meeting on behalf of the new operator of the Ruby Trust Mine, also took exception to Randall-Parker’s explanation. He pointed out that County Road 361 threads its way through numerous patented (private) properties and thus should not be exclusively under the Forest Service’s control.

“It went from the mining road to a state highway and then back to the county,” Larson said. “It’s a very strong position that will need to be resolved.”

Randall-Parker reiterated that the matter must ultimately be resolved in federal courts. “When the judge rules on it, then the Forest Service and federal government can say this is a county road,” she said. “But until that happens, we can’t. And we have talked to the county commissioners about that. We have talked to their attorneys. They understand the process.”

Another option for transferring jurisdiction over the road from the Forest Service to Ouray County would be to put in place a Federal Road and Trails Act easement. “That would give the county additional authorities and ownership rights on the road, which would include managing gates and that kind of stuff,” Randall-Parker said. “It still wouldn’t pertain to the permits you get as outfitters and guides, but it would give the county some additional ownership in the road.”

Next Steps

Putting such matters aside – for the time being – Randall Parker promised that the Forest Service would host more follow-up meetings with the public in the near future, after which she said she will begin “scoping for solutions” to the various problems and conflicts along the Camp Bird Road.

Some of these solutions could take years to implement and require a full NEPA process. Others – such as putting in signs or an information kiosk, plowing out the Thistledown campground for overflow parking, and introducing a registration system for backcountry users – “We will jump on right away,” she promised.

Editor’s Note: Commissioner Ben Tisdel is the brother of Samantha Wright. He did not contribute to the reporting or editing of this story. 

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About the Author

Samantha Wright

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Samantha Tisdel Wright writes and raises two red-headed children in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, dividing her time between Silverton and Ouray. She has worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications throughout the region, and is proud to be a founding member and co-editor of the San Juan Independent. samantha@sjindependent.org