Snow Rangers to the Rescue!

New programs are springing up across the country to help people enjoy the winter backcountry safely and responsibly.

Photo Credit: Colorado Mountain Club (On the ancestral lands of the Pueblos, Ute, and other Nations)

By Julie Mach, Conservation Director, Colorado Mountain Club

*This article was featured in our Trail Break – Winter 2021 edition

At 8pm on Saturday March 14, Colorado’s Governor announced an executive order to close all ski resorts in the state. Immediately. The COVID-19 pandemic was making its preliminary destructive foray right at the height of the ski season, at the beginning of the spring break rush. With the lifts shut down for the rest of the season, I knew the backcountry was in trouble.

A week later, I was scouting some terrain for an advocacy project near Loveland Ski Area (one of the closest resorts to Denver, just of I-70) and the scene was shocking. Hundreds of cars were crammed along both sides of the road (the parking lot was closed) and thousands of skiers were descending upon the resort with uphill gear: AT skis, splitboards, snowshoes, many in use for the first time. The resort was tracked out by mid-morning. When I drove over Loveland pass that afternoon, the popular backcountry shuttle lot was overflowing, and more than 30 skiers were waiting, thumbs out, to hitch a ride back up the hill. This trend was consistent across Colorado, and forced most resorts along I-70 to fully close to uphill traffic for the remainder of the season, pushing even more folks into the backcountry.

As we head into a second season of resort restrictions and users clamoring for anything outdoors, Colorado’s winter backcountry is expected to explode. A report from the Snowsports Industries of America (SIA) forecasts a 29% increase in participation for winter outdoor activities this season, but with so many new users getting out into the backcountry, land managers are already struggling to keep impacts in check. User conflict, safety issues, parking and human waste are just a few of the most acute.

Enter: Snow Rangers.

In an odd coincidence, at the height of the first COVID peak, the Colorado Mountain Club was just wrapping up the first year of a new program focused on winter recreation management in Southwest Colorado. Our two Snow Rangers – Chris Snell and Kricket Olin– worked on the Ouray Ranger District of the Uncompahgre National Forest to educate users, engage partner groups, install signage and monitor use in popular backcountry areas like Red Mountain Pass and the Cimarron Mountains. They connected with hundreds of backcountry users of all kinds (skiers, snowmobilers, Nordic skiers, etc.) to provide information about local regulations, trail etiquette, avalanche conditions and much more.

A typical day might include working with Avalanche forecasters to identify closures and danger zones, hanging in the parking lot at Red Mountain Pass to help with beacon checks, patrolling Wilderness boundaries to check for snowmobile incursions, or working with a local school group as they learn about winter wildlife and snow science. According to local Forest Service staff, “having eyes on the ground” is one of the most helpful aspects of the Snow Ranger program. “We are able to interact, visit, and be present with recreational users on our district now,” says Forest Service Natural Resource Specialist Caleb Valdez. Snow Rangers are “invested in protecting a backcountry experience for the general public on these amazing landscapes,” he adds.

This season, the need for friendly, knowledgeable faces in the backcountry will be more important than ever. And so we’re excited to bring a team back to the Ouray district, and will be expanding the program in future years. We’re also interested in sharing experiences and best practices with other, similar programs across the country — including in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California, Washington, even New Hampshire — and improving coordination across land management agencies and districts. To this end, we’ll be hosting our first Snow Ranger Summit in January. Interested? Contact juliemach@cmc.org for details.

We owe a huge thanks to the United States Forest Service, Weston Backcountry, Black Diamond and Winter Wildlands Alliance for their support of this program. To learn more, visit cmc.org/snowranger.