With the arrival of snow – at long last – in Southwest Colorado, many Nordic skiers headed to Vallecito Reservoir for the first time this season may be asking: Why are nearly half the trails closed?
The reasons behind the closures are not easy to explain, but Gary Gianniny, Vallecito Nordic Ski Club president, told skiers to take heart. Even though the trails are unlikely to reopen this year, the issue should be resolved by next winter.
“We’re really optimistic,” Gianniny said.
For at least the past two decades, Nordic skiers have traveled to Vallecito Reservoir, about 20 miles northeast of Durango, to enjoy the 7 to 10 miles of Nordic trails on the east side of the lake.
Skiers park at the Vallecito Nordic trailhead at the Old Timer’s Campground, which is the first of several campgrounds managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Then, skiers traditionally travel up Forest Service Road 603, which is closed to motor vehicles and groomed in the winter, returning in a loop by taking a path alongside the beach of Vallecito Reservoir.
However, this year, the trail that follows the beach on the eastern edge of the reservoir is off limits to Nordic skiers, thereby eliminating almost 50 percent of usually groomed terrain. Many consider this the most scenic part of the trip.
The first leg of the trip on Forest Service Road 603 is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which allows Nordic skiers to park at its campground and recreate on the road with no associated fees.
Over the years, the entire Nordic ski trail system at the reservoir has been groomed by an all-volunteer crew from the Vallecito Nordic Ski Club, a nonprofit made up of about 100 people that operates on donations.
The return trip along the beach is under the jurisdiction of the Pine River Irrigation District, the operating body that provides water to irrigators from Vallecito Reservoir under the authority of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
For years, PRID has argued that, under an act passed by Congress in 1953, it has the right to charge Nordic skiers for using not only the stretch along the beach but also the Forest Service road that is within the boundaries of the water district’s irrigation project.
Last season, PRID attempted to charge a $3-per-vehicle fee for people who parked at the Forest Service campground.
“There were some pretty upset people last year,” Gianniny said. “A lot of people like to ski on the beach, and those people should pay a PRID fee. But if you’re just going to stay on Forest Service land, I’m not so sure they should until these jurisdictional issues are figured out.”
With the lingering confusion, PRID decided to close off the beach area this year while the matters are settled over jurisdiction. But it appears all parties involved support Nordic skiing at Vallecito and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We all want the skiers to enjoy those facilities up at the lake,” said Ken Beck, PRID superintendent. “We’re trying to expedite the process and get it done and the ski trails back open as quickly as we can.”
At Vallecito Reservoir, all users – including people who hike, fish, boat, etc. – pay a $3 day-use fee or $30 for an annual pass that goes to PRID for operating and maintenance costs for the irrigation project.
Beck said it’s only fair to include Nordic skiers in that group.
“They are modest fees and don’t put a great deal of financial burden on anyone,” Beck said. “It’s not a heavy-handed fee being requested.”
In a good snow year, Gianniny said there could be up to 1,500 user days at the Vallecito Nordic trails. Of that amount, he estimated that only 30 percent of the people who Nordic ski at Vallecito are actually members of the club.
The Nordic club asks its members for donations that go toward grooming and equipment maintenance, but otherwise, the activity is free. The U.S. Forest Service, too, does not have the authority to impose any fees on users.
“We’ve been supportive of the Nordic skiers for quite a few years, giving them permits to groom on our roads and campgrounds,” said Matt Janowiak, Columbine District ranger. “It’s a good community asset.”
Janowiak said the Forest Service will work with PRID and the Bureau of Reclamation to come up with a management plan that works for all the different agencies and interests involved.
“We’re hopeful to get an over-arching agreement on this,” Janowiak said. “The end goal is not to push skiers away from Vallecito. We all want the ski operations to continue.”
For Nordic skiers, now that the long-awaited winter has arrived, the agreement couldn’t come soon enough.
“Without that area along the beach, it’s not as nice a place to ski,” Gianniny said. “So we’re really happy things are moving forward.”