Who should be responsible this winter for plowing a snow-covered San Juan County road that is a popular getaway for many Grand County recreationists?
The Grand County Council struggled this week to answer that question.
Council members deadlocked on a Feb. 2 motion from Chris Baird that would have approved more than $14,000 in Grand County funding to plow Geyser Pass Road, subject to a written agreement with San Juan County and other conditions. Baird, Ken Ballantyne and Mary McGann voted in favor of the motion, while Jaylyn Hawks, Lynn Jackson and Elizabeth Tubbs voted against it. Rory Paxman was absent from the meeting.
The road leads to the Geyser Pass Trailhead area on the southeastern flank of the La Sal Mountains.
Grand County Road Supervisor Bill Jackson said that San Juan County was routinely plowing the route until major storms in mid- to late-December 2015 walloped the area.
“They’ve certainly have been doing a fantastic job since 2007,” he said.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams told the Moab Sun News that his county’s road department will get to Geyser Pass when it can. But at a time when much of the county has been hammered with snow, he said, roads that are mainly used by recreationists are probably the county’s lowest maintenance priority.
“We have priorities that start with school bus routes,” Adams said. “There are children on the (Navajo Nation) that struggle to get to school.”
By his estimates, San Juan County must maintain about 300 miles of school bus routes, and that job has been tougher than usual this season, as the county’s snowpack has averaged more than 200 percent of normal. The most recent storm alone brought an estimated 18 inches of snow to the Geyser Pass area.
“We have a huge amount of roads that we try to get open – especially for schoolchildren and emergency services,” he said.
Hawks said she thinks of the recent snowstorms as a kind of natural disaster that sometimes leads to short-term road closures of routes like Geyser Pass.
“I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world if people were denied access for a week or two,” she said.
But Baird said he would like to see the road to the trailhead maintained on a regular basis this season.
“I just want to make sure that the road is open for people to go up and enjoy,” he said. “I didn’t want to let politics get in the way of just getting the job done.”
Bill Jackson said he believes that his counterparts in San Juan County have the ability to maintain the road during the winter months and other times of the year. In the past, he said, his department has taken a cooperative approach by helping San Juan County when it reaches out to Grand County for help.
“We have been up there on different occasions – not only there, but other places – when we need to,” he said.
“Why I wasn’t asked this time, I don’t know,” he added.
As he sees it, the issue is one that the U.S. Forest Service and San Juan County should be handling.
“But now we’re here,” he said.
Brian Murdock, who serves as the recreation and trails manager for the Forest Service’s Moab Ranger District, said that road plowing is not a service that his agency typically provides.
However, he said the Forest Service will explore the possibility of seeking grants and other funding sources to help cover maintenance costs, considering Geyser Pass’ importance as a recreational asset to the community.
On average, 50 to 60 vehicles park at the trailhead on weekends; visitor traffic drops to around five to 15 vehicles on weekdays.
“There’s a broad cross-spectrum of people that goes up there,” Baird said. “It’s not just hippies.”
Popular activities in the area include backcountry skiing, as well as cross-country and skate skiing on groomed trails. Other recreational activities are also on the rise, according to Murdock.
“Fat tire biking is becoming more popular,” he said. “Snowboarding is very popular with locals making runs between the plowed portions of the road.”
In addition to other nonmotorized uses, Murdock noted that snowmobiles and timber sleds use the Geyser Pass Trailhead, as well, and local families harvest Christmas trees along the road in November and December.
Lynn Jackson said he hopes the council can work with San Juan County to find a long-term solution to the road maintenance issue. But in the short term, he said he’s concerned that council members would be rushing to take care of a problem that may not be around for much longer, despite some council members’ concerns about road crews’ safety.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the safety aspect,” he said. “I don’t know that our road department has the equipment they need to handle that.”
It would be helpful, Bill Jackson said, if backcountry users could get the word out asking others to be careful and respectful while crews are working to clear the roads. Driving past posted warning signs where crews are on the job is not only dangerous; it can add to overall maintenance costs.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “And it’s not just Geyser Pass – it’s everywhere. But if I have to start putting traffic control and flaggers (in place), then the price is going up.”
In the wake of the council’s deadlocked vote, Tubbs said she plans to discuss other options with San Juan County Commission chair Phil Lyman.
Moving forward, Bill Jackson asked the council to remember that San Juan County commissioners previously vowed to take a more active role over certain roads that Grand County maintained for nearly two decades until 2007.
“Don’t lose (sight of) the fact that in 2007, they said, ‘We want our roads back, and we’ll take care of our own roads’ – very strongly,” he said.
Adams told the Moab Sun News that he stands by the statements that commissioners made in their 2007 letter to Grand County, although he said he’s open to further discussions about the Geyser Pass issue.
“I have no reason to change my position,” he said. “But if Grand County wants to do something with San Juan County, I’m sure we’d listen.”
San Juan County defers maintenance to focus on higher priorities