Mount Sneffels, above Ridgway. (Courtesy photo)


“Getting woke,” the Urban Dictionary says, “is like being in the Matrix and taking the red pill. You get a sudden understanding of what is really going on.”

Rural Ouray County is about as far from the urban world as one might imagine, and an increasing number of residents appear determined to keep it that way. 

They’re writing letters, signing online petitions, turning up in ever-larger numbers in public meetings and replying to surveys, all with the aim of keeping Ouray County Road 5 unplowed this winter.

You might say they are woke.

For the past three years, a group of property owners has received permission from the Ouray County Board of Commissioners to plow County Road 5 for about a mile. The road eventually leads to the top of a mesa, and Forest Service land, overlooking Ridgway. 

For this year, the property owners have requested permission to “improve” the road all the way up the top of the hill, a total of about four miles. They have offered to pay for its upkeep. 

Ridgway Mayor John Clark has said he’s reminded of the reasons for Ouray County’s “Right to Farm” ordinance, which passed in 2001 and preserves the rights of farmers to retain their “traditional” way of life in this region. County Road 5 has traditionally been unimproved, facilitating entry to the wilderness for generations of residents and visitors who not only “recreate” there on skis or snowshoes or snowmobiles, but simply prefer it as a pristine place for a getaway.

In ever-greater numbers residents seem to be getting the message that local wilderness may be at risk. 

At a recent BOCC meeting, about 80 people showed up. 

In a poll of Elk Meadows residents conducted by resident Diane Thompson, a retired schoolteacher from Denver, 69.4 percent of respondents — 25 people — replied “no” to whether CR 5 “above the Elk Meadows mailboxes” should be plowed in winter (a total of 75.9 percent of respondents averred that they use the road in winter). 

An online petition started by Ridgway resident Kay Lair (at https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/KeeptheSnow) has gathered more than 200 signatures in favor of leaving the road unplowed. 

“I am a year-round homeowner” who has accessed the upper reaches of CR 5 “several hundred times” and “that is a low estimate,” wrote Magda Sokolowski, who has owned property in the region for three years. “The opportunities for all should not be sacrificed for the benefit of one or a few landowners,” some of whom “only access their properties a couple times a year.” 

One respondent spoke up for those who have no voice. “My wife and I own a home on Miller Mesa, so we are already impacted by this decision,” the correspondent noted. “Upper CR5 is already heavily used … plowing this portion of road and making it available ‘year-round’ would be a disaster for not only the solitude of winter recreationists but also for the space and tranquility of local wildlife.”

The question before county commissioners, who have emphasized that they would like to find a solution that works for everyone (but have yet to do so) is, where should the “tranquility” begin? On Forest Service land miles above, or on a winter road that leads there, which for the vast majority of its history has been left unplowed? 

One thing is certain: The past few weeks have been good for raising locals’ consciousness. The Ridgway-Ouray Community Council, a nonprofit whose mission is “to build, nourish and protect the healthy spirit of our community,” has witnessed an uptick in membership. “We’ve had people come to our land use committee meeting who have not been previously involved with ROCC,” co-chair Kate Kellogg said. “It’s how we get a lot of new members, when an issue like this comes up.” 

ROCC recently started a fund, at roccnet.org, which will be used to retain an attorney “to give us legal advice on keeping the upper sections of County Roads 5, 7 and 9” unplowed. “We’re all trying to find a peaceful, win-win solution to this,” Thompson said, but so far, “only the property owners have an attorney. The rest of us are just sitting there.”