The temperature is a perfect 75 degrees, with cloudless skies, a calm breeze moving through the branches above you, and an open trail ahead. Friends sit around a campfire with the Milky Way spanning the night sky above. Scenes like this one are part of the reason why so many people flock to the White River National Forest in our beautiful, yet fleeting, summer season. With almost 2,700 miles of foot trails and close to 1,900 miles of roads, it’s paradise for the hiker, camper, off-roader, hunter, or simply anyone interested in spending time outdoors.
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Then comes winter, and it might seem like everyone hangs up their hiking boots and grabs their skis, snowboards, and keys to the old sled; but the action doesn’t stop for the National Forest Service’s intrepid rangers. While the crews might not be hitting the trails with shovels and Pulaskis once the snow falls, there’s still plenty to be done to make sure that our public lands are well taken care of.
The US Forest Service plays a pivotal role in our ability to ski at many of our favorite resorts. The White River National Forest manages eleven of Colorado’s most well-known ski areas: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Buttermilk, and Sunlight. These world-class recreation destinations contribute to the approximately 8 million winter visits to the White River National Forest, which makes it one of the most visited National Forests in the nation. In order for these resorts to operate on public land, they are issued a permit from the Forest Service that identifies operation plans and how they are able to use the land. Actions like cutting new runs or adding acreage within the permit boundary are carefully discussed and vetted through the public with the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process to ensure that the public is aware of the proposed changes and the impacts to natural resources.
Second, during the winter, there are plenty of projects that need careful analysis and deliberation by Forest Service staff. Any entity that wants to use Forest Service land for any reason must consult with Forest Service personnel in order to determine environmental impact and compatibility with the Forest Land Use Plan for the area of interest. Additionally, summer projects including wildlife surveys, trail construction and maintenance, campsite upkeep, and user surveys are identified, planned, and analyzed during the off-season to ensure that the brief summertime can be used to its fullest potential. And while forest fires in the winter might seem less likely, our local Forest Service fire rangers still may travel to fires burning in less snowy areas to provide assistance.
And finally, the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District station in Minturn is open during the winter to help you explore resources available to the public. The station is open 8:00-1:00, 1:30-4:30 Monday through Friday, and they are always happy to answer questions or direct you to the best places to snowshoe, cross country ski, snowmobile, and more. Operated by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service manages lands that are owned by all American citizens and exist so that we all can have access to the natural world and the varied resources and opportunities it offers. So if you meet a ranger, whether it be on the trail or on the lift, ask them about what they do and you’ll probably learn something you didn’t know before about how our public lands are taken care of.
Teddy Jones is a Naturalist with Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. He considers the forest to be his second home, which would explain why he always has twigs in his hair.