WINTER PARK - Beginning Sept. 4, a portion of the Arapaho National Forest near Winter Park and Fraser will be closed temporarily to all public use while the U.S. Forest Service works to clear beetle-killed trees along heavily used roads and trails.
The closure is expected to remain in place until Nov. 15.
The 29,000-acre closure will encompass all of the Fraser Experimental Forest, and the Arapaho National Forest from Winter Park and Fraser south to Vasquez Peak Wilderness and east to Vasquez Road.
Vasquez Road will remain open to public use. However, all national forest land, roads, and trails west of Vasquez Road will be closed to the western boundary of the Fraser Experimental Forest.
This area is popular with mountain bikers, hikers, campers, and hunters, because it is within walking distance of the towns and the ski area.
Violators of the closure could face a maximum fine of $5,000 and/or six months in jail, according to the Forest Service.
"We are very supportive of the work being completed and believe it is critically important for people who use the woods so future recreation will be available to all of the users," said Drew Nelson, Winter Park town manager.
Visitors to the National Forest are responsible for knowing where the closures are, and hunters are encouraged to check with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife where and when the closures are as the closures will be in effect during multiple hunting seasons.
"Thank you for your patience while we work to make our National Forest roads and trails safer for all users," said Sulphur District Ranger Craig Magwire.
During the past decade the mountain pine beetle epidemic has killed an estimated 80 percent of the mature lodgepole pine tree population in Grand County, creating numerous hazards along U.S. Forest Service roads and trails as the trees fall.
An increased risk for high intensity fires also exists in beetle affected forests as dead trees, their dry needles, and fallen trees can serve as fuel to allow forest fires to spread quickly.
In an effort to improve public safety and reduce fire hazards, the Forest Service's Sulphur Ranger District has hired contractors to remove dead and dying trees along more than 150 miles of high-use forest service roads and trails in Grand County.
Due to a lack of compliance from the public regarding smaller closures that took place in the Arapaho Forest associated with this project earlier this summer, U.S. Forest Service officials say they were forced to shut down the project for safety reasons.
It was later established through a meeting of the Forest Service, community leaders, local special interest groups, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that a larger and more enforceable closure area was needed in order to complete the project quickly and safely.
Community leaders from Winter Park, Fraser, and Grand County have re-affirmed their support for the project and have offered assistance in both law enforcement patrols and working with the public.
Information about closures and other areas to experience in Grand County will be available at visitor centers in both Winter park and Fraser, Winter Park Resort, and local businesses and lodging companies.
The closure will impact deer, elk, bear, moose, and mountain goat seasons in Game Management Unit 28 during archery, muzzleloading, and the first through third rifle seasons.
Game Management Unit 28 is popular for archery hunters as well as mountain goat hunters, said Grand County Parks and Wildlife Manager Scott Murdoch.
Bear, moose, and mountain goat licenses are highly coveted, and a bull moose tag in Colorado is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Murdoch said.
"This is definitely going to concentrate hunters in other areas," he said. "We will just have to make some adjustments while the work is being completed."
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Forest Service have been attempting to contact recipients of these licenses to warn them that the closures are in place, but they consider it to be the hunters responsibility to check into whether the closures affect their hunting plans, said Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Sulphur Ranger District.
So far only a few hunters have been successfully contacted by phone or e-mail due to difficulty associated with locating tag holders, especially those who purchased over-the-counter tags.
"It is important to remember that the closure applies to everyone and all places," Armstrong said. "You can very easily end up somewhere by accident, which is why we closed such a large area."
Cross country travel is prohibited in the closure area, and hunters should plan to camp and remove game only via open roads and trail.
Access into and through the closure area will be prohibited.
"We have been addressing a lot of calls at our office in Hot Sulphur Springs," Murdoch said. "We try to direct them to other areas that could be used."
"While it is an inconvenience, it is very clear that there is a safety concern in that area and this work will benefit everyone in the long run," he said.
Contractors also continue to complete tree-clearing work in Game Management Unit 18 in the Stillwater, upper Kawuneeche, and Kauffman Creek area. Road and trail closures in these areas will impact hunting access as well.
Despite the closure of a popular recreation area, there are numerous opportunities for recreation seekers to access other areas around Winter Park and Fraser. Visitors and locals alike are encouraged to explore other parts of the Sulphur Ranger District.
"The closures are necessary. Anyone who has been out in this area has seen the downed trees," said Keith Sanders, president of the Grand Mountain Bike Alliance and local bike guru. He is in full support of the project and believes the keys to success of the project lie in the cooperation of all of the available entities and in educating locals and guests as to where the closures are and where else they can recreate.
"It's an inconvenience but for the long term health and safety of the trail system, this is a beneficial project and I'm glad the Forest Service is getting this done," Sanders said.
The east side of U.S. Highway 40, including Devil's Thumb, Meadow Creek, and the James Peak Protection Area will be open to public use. However, when clearing work is finished in the closure area, those contractors may move to the Meadow Creek area.
Amenities at Winter Park Resort remain unaffected by the closures. Trestle Bike Park will remain open daily through Sept. 23, featuring more than 40 miles of gravity trails fed by three lifts. Activities at the base area Village also will be operating through the 23rd.
Discover something new
Catherine Ross, executive director of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, commented that the chamber is working together with local businesses to make the upcoming months; "discover a new trail months."
Maura Mcknight, executive director of Headwaters Trail Alliance, is going to apply her resources to working on other trails in the area and hopes to provide volunteers to direct people away from closed areas and into areas that are open to be explored.
"We are in full support of the closures and we are excited to see the work done," McKnight said. "It is a relatively short closure for such a large project, and we look forward to having safer trails."
McKnight asks that anyone who is interested in volunteering to contact her by calling the Headwaters Trail Alliance at 970-726-1013.
You can also check trail updates from the Headwaters Trail Alliance and volunteer by visiting their website at headwaterstrails.org.
Mountain bikers can ride between the town of Winter Park and Winter Park Resort on trails east of Vasquez Road, including Blue Sky, Chickadee, Lower and Upper Cherokee, Ice Hill and Serenity. The Idlewild Trail System is also available for mountain bikers to explore on the east side of the highway.
Sanders has posted closure maps in his shop and through his social media pages and recommends that riders go out and try the Idlewild and Rendezvous trail systems.
"I think this project needs to get done quickly and safely," Sanders said. "After it is done I think in the long term things will be much better off for years to come."