Cross-country skiers, snowmobilers find range is big enough for both

Coloradans, like most inhabitants of the Rocky Mountain west, take their winter sports very seriously.

A case in point comes from Grand Mesa, which has the distinction of being the world's largest flat-topped mountain.

With an area about half the size of Rhode Island, Grand Mesa has become a favorite spot for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

For the last two years, however, since the first cross-country enthusiasts began kicking and gliding across pristine snows of the 10,500-foot mesa, there has been a running feud between them and the snowmobilers.

Local journalists have drawn analogies to the range wars of old that pitted cattlemen and sheep herders around the turn of the century.

Fist fights broke out between the skiers and snowmobilers. A gun was pulled once. And there were rumors that cross-country skiers were stringing piano wire between trees to bring down snowmobilers.

The skiers, in search of a quiet, untouched environment, objected to the noise of the snowmobiles and accused them of tearing up ski trails.

The snowmobilers argued that the skiers had invaded their ground (the area is US Forest Service land), saying that cross-country enthusiasts could find isolation at one of the less accessible wilderness areas in the region where all motorized vehicles are banned.

But like the range wars in Hollywood westerns, this story has a happy ending. By getting the two groups to use different parking areas and different portions of the sprawling mesa, Dale Bittle, a US Forest Service recreational specialist, has helped bring peace to this winter sports paradise.

''Everything is working out just fine,'' Mr. Bittle reports.

Not only have the conflicts subsided, but the two groups are working together , he says.

For instance, snowmobilers groomed cross-country trails for a recent race and helped with radio communications, Bittle says.

When asked which sport he personally practices, Bittle replies diplomatically , ''I do both. I like to know the other guy's point of view.''

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