An off-highway haven
Forest Service designates motorized routes in ‘The Lakes’

SideStory: Moving on to the next landscape

An ATV sits alongside the road onm the north end of Vallecito Reservoir earlier this summer. The San Juan National Forest Service recnetly released a travel management plan for ORVs in “The Lakes” area, which includes national forest land aorund Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs. The plan was mandated in 2004 by Forest Chief Dale Bosworth to reign in ORV abuse on public lands./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

The motorized debate is far from idle in Durango. The Forest Service recently designated routes and concentrated motorized use in one section of the San Juan National Forest. This mini-mecca for motorized recreation, located near Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs, is continuing to mix opinions.

In July of 2004, the Forest Service announced a crackdown on four-wheelers, jeeps, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. The move came in response to huge growth in motorsports in just a few years as well as the appearance of more than 60,000 miles of renegade off-highway vehicle trails on national forest lands throughout the nation. At the time, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth proclaimed that OHV abuse was the top threat to national forests and ordered regional and local offices to confine motorized travel to designated roads and trails.

In response, the San Juan National Forest took a decidedly different approach to Bosworth’s order, opting for a carrot over a stick. Rather than cracking down on illegal OHV use or starting to police 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.”

As part of the travel management process, the Forest Service started to examine 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 because of the “labyrinth” of hundreds of miles of existing roads in the area.

After years of dialogue and analysis, the Forest Service recently released its plan for The Lakes, releasing a modified alternative that designates 52 miles of roads and trails as open to motorized travel. The agency endeavored to provide sustainable trails that include scenic vistas and accommodate a variety of skill levels. On the flip side, the decision seeks to limit motorized intrusions into the Weminuche Wilderness area, erase user created routes, limit user conflicts and close the area to use in the fall during bighorn lambing season.

“I think we definitely tried to strike a balance,” Berry said of the decision. “We’re hoping that by designating routes and working on the trail system, we’ll have created something sustainable for motorized users.”

Unlike many Forest Service decisions, the agency built a fail-safe into The Lakes. Over a three-year period, the Forest Service will monitor the trail system for OHV abuse and go back to square one if abuse persists.

“If we continue to see abuse and user-created trails, this enables us to go back to the ‘no action’ alternative,” Berry said. “The hope is that the user groups will self-police in order to keep these trails open.”

The local motorized community says it will rise to this challenge. Gary Wilkinson, a member of the San Juan Trail Riders Board of Directors, said that his group is generally pleased with the designation.

“When you consider that terrain that was once multiple use is being restricted more and more, the motorized user always comes out on the short side of the stick,” he said. “But we are pleased with this process in that they did accommodate us to some degree.”

Wilkinson argued that OHV users have an undeserved bad reputation because of a few bad users. He added that the local motorized community plans to be vigilant on the Lakes landscape and will continue to be at the table.

“In a perfect world, we would all learn to play well together,” he said. “We just need to be diligent and continue to work with all of the players.”

Two longstanding, local OHV watchdogs are also cautiously optimistic about the recent decision. Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, spotlighted the plan’s three-year probation period. He argued that this trial will make or break the San Juan National Forest’s newest motorized sanctuary.

“We continue to be really concerned about the significant and ongoing incursions into the wilderness area,” he said. “But this decision really puts the motorized community on notice that they need to rise to the occasion and take care of the public resource.”

Great Old Broads for Wilderness echoed the sentiment. Like Buickrood, Ronni Egan, Broads executive director, noted that the proof will be in the monitoring.

“We feel this is one of the better travel management plans we’ve seen come out of many different Forest Service offices,” she said. “We look forward to working with the San Juan Public Lands office to monitor and make sure the designations are enforced.”

One group that has a less favorable view of the decision is the Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Dave Peterson, co-chair of the group, accused the Forest Service of failing to live up Bosworth’s 2004 mandate.

“I understand that it’s a tough job to balance the rights of all users,” he said. “But I don’t feel that they’ve really gone with the spirit of the Forest Service chief’s request. They are by and large doing the minimum they can to satisfy the mandate and nothing to undo the damage of the last couple decades.”

Peterson added that his group made three requests of the agency – a longer wildlife closure among them – and none of them made it into the final plan. “I really don’t feel like we got a fair shake on what we put into this process,” he said. “We were basically asking them to follow their own laws, and they ignored us.”

The San Juan Trail Riders, another group that feels it has lost ground, is looking not at the past but the future. Wilkinson concluded that The Lakes will be a stepping stone for restoring motorized recreation in the region, and the group has already begun work on identifying suitable routes in the Saul’s Creek/Beaver Meadows region near Bayfield.

“As we continue to the next landscapes, we will continue to work with the Forest Service to enhance off-highway vehicle opportunities,” Wilkinson said. •



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