The search for silence
Local groups, agencies rally against off-highway vehicles

SideStory: ‘In Quest of Quiet Places’

A row of four-wheelers sit idle south of Durango last week. Groups and agencies from throughout the San Juans are coming together this Saturday to discuss quiet places. They claim off-highway vehicle overuse and abuse is harming natural resources and the quiet user experience and are going to look for solutions. /Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

The rumbling return of off-highway vehicles is just around the corner, but a quieter spring and summer could be in store for the San Juan Mountains. Numerous local groups and agencies are currently combining forces to lighten the impacts on the local backcountry from four-wheelers, snowmobiles, jeeps and other OHVs.

Groups and agencies have been steadily waking up to the impacts of OHVs in recent years. In July of 2004, the Forest Service drew a line in the dirt and announced that it would be taking steps to reduce damage to public lands from off-road vehicles. The announcement came in response to the huge growth in motorsports in just a few years and the appearance of more than 60,000 miles of renegade OHV trails and major damage to habitat and watersheds on national forest lands. At the time, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth proclaimed that OHV 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 has taken a roundabout approach to Bosworth’s order. Rather than cracking down on illegal OHV use or further policing the vehicles, the Forest Service hopes to enhance the experience in certain areas and create routes specifically for off-highway vehicles.

“We’re looking at making a trail system where OHVs can travel,” explained Nancy Berry, recreation forester, in a Durango Telegraph story last fall. “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. I think it’ll be good for everyone.”

The Forest Service is looking at the “Lakes” landscape, an area encompassing a large portion of Missionary Ridge as well as Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs, as that OHV sanctuary.

However, others are calling for a more comprehensive approach. In this spirit, Chris Paulson, vice-chair of the local chapter of the Colorado Mountain Club, has organized the forum, “In Quest of Quiet Places,” on March 17. “There seems be a carrot philosophy here – if we provide designated routes, motorized users will abide by the rules,” she said. “The real question is whether these sacrifice areas save a part of the forest, or are we just opening up more areas to motorized travel.”

Paulson is hopeful that this Saturday’s forum will provide a catalyst and a starting point for groups, individuals and government entities throughout the region. The idea is that a coalition of quiet users will form and begin forwarding concerns and spreading awareness about OHV impacts.

“The problem with us quiet users is that we’re too quiet,” Paulson said. “We need to get more proactive and come together around this issue. That’s what this conference is all about.”

The Durango-based conservation group, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, has been challenging OHV impacts for years. The Broads have documented and mapped illegal impacts from off-highway vehicles primarily in Southeast Utah and in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. In spite of efforts like this, OHV use and abuse continues to grow on public lands

“Motorized use has grown exponentially both on designated legal routes and on unauthorized, user-created routes, which are proliferating at an obscene rate,” said Ronni Egan, Broads’ executive director. “Because these machines can go farther and faster than quiet users can go on their feet, they impact a great deal more territory. It’s also getting harder and harder to get away from them for those of us who don’t go so far so quickly.”

Egan disputed the notion that OHVs are critical to provide access to nature for older people. “Of course, Great Old Broads represents a demographic of older people who don’t rely on motorized means to get out and see the countryside,” she said. “But we also don’t feel that being old is a valid excuse for new roads and motorized routes. We don’t need and don’t want roads and OHVs to get us where we need to go.”

Representing Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Dave Peterson brings a different perspective to the discussion. As an avid hunter, he has watched OHVs destroy local habitat, disrupt and frighten wildlife, and sully local water quality.

“It’s a very personal issue to me,” he said. “As a fanatical elk hunter and bow hunter, I have personally lost almost all of my old favorite national forest walk-in hunting spots to motorized invasion. All of those places now have such a heavy infestation of motorized hunters, I’ve had to give them up.”

Peterson is currently working to bring a new level of off-highway vehicle enforcement to La Plata County. His hope is that the local commissioners can mimic an effort where four counties – San Juan, Ouray, Hinsdale and San Miguel – combined efforts to combat OHV abuse. Pete McKay, San Juan County commissioner, explained that the effort started with a strengthening of existing laws.

“The first steps we took were to require liability insurance and a drivers license for all OHV users,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of underage drivers, and that’s led to some dangerous situations. There have been accidents over the years, and we’re trying to avoid a catastrophic accident.”

All four counties share portions of the popular Alpine Loop and other jeep roads and backcountry routes in the San Juans. As a result, they are collectively hiring a backcountry ranger to patrol the San Juan Mountains during the high-use season of mid-May to mid-September.

“We want to protect our natural resources and the high country and tundra,” McKay said. “Over the years, we’ve had many violations, and we’re going to get this out there this summer to help people understand and follow the rules.”

Given the absence of federal funding and enforcement, the new ranger is the only answer, according to McKay. “There are at most one or two rangers with the BLM and Forest Service covering hundreds of thousands of acres in the Four Corners area,” he said. “We’re going to try to compliment their enforcement.”

“In Quest of Quiet Places,” Saturday’s forum, hopes that similar efforts will spread through the Four Corners and beyond. Egan concluded that awareness and action are already beginning to grow.

“There are beginning to be more and more local conferences like this one,” she said. “Motorized users are very well organized and financed, and people are realizing that the only way we can compete is to get together and start making some noise.” •



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