Firing up the motorized community
Forest Service proposal riles off-highway vehicle users

SideStory: Weigh in on Missionary Ridge: Forest Service opens comment period

Four-wheelers have been declared public lands enemy #1 by the chief of the Forest Service. The San Juan Public Lands Center has answered the call by proposing specific routes near Lake Vallecito which will remain open to motorized use. However, the current plan does not go far enough, according to motorized users./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Plans for a motorized playground on the San Juan National Forest appear to be backfiring. In response to an order to reduce off-highway vehicle impacts, the local Forest Service has been taking a roundabout approach. However, the agency’s attempts to concentrate and enhance motorized use in the Missionary Ridge area are not meeting with users’ favor.

In July of 2004, the Forest Service announced that it would be taking steps to reduce damage to public lands from off-road vehicles, including four-wheelers, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. The announcement came in response to huge growth in motorsports in just a few years and the appearance of more than 60,000 miles of renegade ORV trails on national forest lands throughout the nation. At the time, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth proclaimed that off-highway vehicle abuse was a top threat to national forests and ordered regional and local offices to confine OHV use to designated roads and trails and prohibit cross-country travel.

The San Juan National Forest took a decidedly different approach to Bosworth’s order. Rather than cracking down on illegal ORV use or further policing the vehicles, the Forest Service planned to enhance the experience in certain areas. By creating routes specifically for off-highway vehicles, the agency hoped to concentrate the use and alleviate pressure on other sections of the forest.

“Unregulated motorized use is one of the biggest threats to public land nationwide,” explained Nancy Berry, recreation forester with the Columbine District. “There has been a big increase in motorized use and there have been problems. Now, the goal is to get the use onto designated routes and keep people out of the delicate areas.”

Once designated routes are established, the picture will change for four-wheelers and dirt bikes, according to Berry. Eventually, the use will be confined to motorized-specific areas only. “In certain areas on the forest, motorized travel is currently allowed across the landscape,” Berry said. “That will no longer be the case. We’re trying to provide areas where they can use the land, and then know the areas where they can’t.”

As part of its travel management process, the San Juan National Forest proposed setting aside the “Lakes Landscape” as that OHV sanctuary. The Lakes encompasses a large portion of Missionary Ridge as well as Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs and the Middle Mountain and East Florida dispersed recreation areas.

The San Juan Trail Riders, a local advocacy group for motorized users, was instrumental in spotlighting the Lakes area. The group recognized that OHV use has grown exponentially and that abuses have taken place and wanted to be proactive in creating an area specifically for off-highway recreation.

“The San Juan Trail Riders believed that the Missionary Ridge area, because of the labyrinth of roads that already exists up there, would provide a good opportunity for the OHV community,” explained Gary Wilkinson, a member of the Trail Riders board.

On July11-12, the Forest Service unveiled its proposal for the Missionary Ridge area, though that “labyrinth of roads” shrank dramatically under the agency’s plan. Citing prohibitively steep grades and many areas too wet to sustain motorized travel, the Forest Service proposed 63 miles in the Middle Mountain area and 20 miles in the East Florida area as designated OHV routes. In addition, the agency said it plans to keep all National Forest System Roads open to motorized travel within the Lakes landscape. These numbers fell well short of the Trail Riders’ vision and expectations.

“The biggest growth in the OHV community has been with four-wheelers,” Wilkinson said. “It just so happens that four-wheelers work really well on old logging roads, and there are about 500 miles of old logging roads on Miller Mountain and in the East Florida. The Forest Service could double, triple or even quadruple the number of ATV routes over there without much effort, but that’s not the approach they’re taking.”

Instead, the agency is offering only a small handout to motorized users, according to Wilkinson, while effectively closing the rest of the forest at the same time. “The Forest Service is really offering no new opportunities, and is, in fact, taking away opportunities,” Wilkinson said. “We’re going to a policy that says everything is closed to motorized unless it’s specifically open. With this proposal, they’re really just turning a blind eye to motorized use and choosing not to manage the situation.”

Wilkinson referenced claims that the San Juan National Forest manages its road network at a $40 million shortfall. He countered that motorized users are forced to purchase a $15.20 permit each year, and are the only user groups required to pay a fee for trail and road use.

“Claiming they don’t have enough money is just an easy out,” Wilkinson said. “The OHV community feels, rightly so, that we do a pretty good job of paying our own way, and we do it gladly. It’s assumed that the money will be put to good use.”

Wilkinson concluded that he believes in the value of limiting motorized impacts by concentrating the use to one area. However, he added that the current proposal appears to be short-circuiting the recreational community’s needs.

“I’m not advocating that every route should be opened for motorized use,” Wilkinson said. “But the routes should all be looked at and considered. If they’re just putting them away and not even thinking about it, we’re not accomplishing anything. Whether you’re an OHV user or not, you have to respect each member of the public’s right to public land.”

Trails 2000, a trails advocacy group representing quiet users, shares this sentiment. Mary Monroe, Trails 2000 executive director, commented that multiple use can be ideal if there is respect for the land and fellow users.

“I think multiple use trails are good when users stay on the trail and respect the area,” she said. “There are some areas that I believe should remain as singletrack and some areas that are appropriate for doubletrack and off-highway vehicles.”

With this fact and the size of the San Juan National Forest in mind, Monroe added that she saw no reason why a larger, off-highway haven was not being considered. “The San Juan Public Lands encompasses more than 2.5 million acres,” she said. “Given that, we should be able to find a place for all users to recreate responsibly.”

Berry concluded that with the travel management process, the Forest Service is doing its best to accommodate everyone but is finding itself in a touchy situation. “We’re getting it from all sides and hearing comments from motorized and quiet users,” she said. “It’s definitely a contentious issue.” •



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