OURAY COUNTY – Joe Ryan has been at odds with the United States Forest Service for several years over a pending application to add a trail riding component to his hut-to-hut business on USFS-administered land along the flanks of the Sneffels Range.
Now, Ryan alleges, local Forest Service officials are subjecting his whole operation to undue scrutiny and holding it to unreasonable standards, as retribution for the trail riding dispute, by requiring him to install $10,000 worth of upgrades on huts that have never been granted permanent status.
The huts that comprise Ryan’s San Juan Hut System are just that – huts. Small, rather simple and primitive structures heated by wood-burning stoves, intended simply to provide adequate, safe shelter to recreating skiers, hikers and mountain bikers in the backcountry of the Uncompahgre National Forest and elsewhere. As Ryan puts it, “They’re glorified tents that we’ve cobbled together.”
A Forest Service commissioned code compliance inspector visited the huts last fall. Ryan’s understanding was that the purpose of the inspection was simply to assess the suitability of the huts for his proposed trail riding operation.
However, what resulted was a detailed report with nine pages’ worth of line items listing health and safety improvements that must be made to bring the huts into code compliance. Items ranged from new wood-burning stoves for every hut, to stairs with handrails, to battery-operated carbon monoxide and fire detectors.
While the report identifies Ryan’s huts as “temporary structures,” they were evaluated according to the 2009 International Building Code, which, according to Ouray County Attorney Kathryn Sellars, does not distinguish between temporary and permanent structures.
Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker is the USFS officer charged with processing Ryan’s various permit applications. On April 11 she issued Ryan a notice of noncompliance, stating that the huts were still not up-to-snuff because several of the necessary improvements outlined in the report had not been made.
Ryan asserts that he has in fact already made many of the improvements and has submitted a plan to implement the rest of them before winter sets in. He wants the notice of noncompliance to be rescinded and expunged from his record. “The order of noncompliance was without foundation,” he told The Watch in an interview earlier this week. “They are using it as a weapon and a threat to my business right now. Those things are used as justification for rejecting permits.”
Ryan said that in undergoing multiple routine inspections by over a dozen regional USFS officials over the years, he has “never had a single problem before now. We’ve never fielded any direct complaints from any of those folks. They always recognized these are temporary structures.”
County Commissioner Heidi Albritton and County Administrator Connie Hunt met with Randall-Parker last Thursday to discuss the matter.
“Obviously there is a lot of water under the bridge, but fundamentally I was encouraged that the issue can be resolved locally and that Joe and his hut to hut business can continue to successfully operate here in Ouray County,” Albritton told The Watch. “The County just wants to help move the whole process along in a positive manner, and we remain optimistic that we can get there.”
Ryan remains doubtful that a positive outcome can be attained. Speaking to the Ouray County Commissioners on Tuesday, he said that in 25 years of operating his hut system, his huts have never been held to this level of scrutiny before. However, he added, he’s willing to implement as many of the recommendations for improvement outlined in the report as he can, to bring the structures into compliance.
Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett wondered if the Forest Service is using the right bar to judge the huts. “Or did they just suddenly change the bar after 25 years with no warning? And what message does that send if that happened?”
Albritton concurred. “It isn’t okay if a process is good for one guy one way and it’s different for the next guy. We want to make sure that whatever process you’re being asked to jump through, that it is the proper way for things to go on. I don’t know that we really have a clear understanding of how their process works.”
Padgett worried about the specter of an “unfair game change” and stressed that the Forest Service should grant the huts permanent status if they’re being judged as such. “That seems really fair.”
Ryan stated that winning permanent status for his huts would definitely be to his advantage, removing much of the volatility surrounding his annual USFS permit application process.
The idea of permanent status seemed to resonate with Albritton as well. “If you are invested in the business and they have been there for so long, why wouldn’t you be granted some sort of permanent status which would allow you to move forward on improvements, and the Forest Service the ability to approve your plans?”
The Ouray County Commissioners will seek another meeting with Randall-Parker to clarify these and other issues that were discussed at the meeting.
At press time, Randall-Parker had not responded to an invitation for an interview with The Watch.