Quick N' Dirty

Forest Service cracks down on ATVs
The Forest Service is putting the brakes on off-road vehicle abuse in Southwest Colorado. A few bad throttles have been bending the rules, and the agency is now addressing motorized violations with a firmer hand.

In 2004, the Forest Service was directed to confine motorized travel to designated roads and trails. The San Juan National Forest immediately picked up the charge and took a progressive approach to the order. Rather than upping enforcement, the local agency worked to enhance the motorized experience in certain areas and attract users to motorized sanctuaries.

The San Juan’s first experiment was “The Lakes” landscape, which stretches between Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs and includes portions of Missionary Ridge and Middle Mountain. Three years ago, the agency officially opened The Lakes and designated 52 miles of roads and trails to motorized travel. However, some riders are struggling to play by the rules. After repeated violations and trespass into the Weminuche Wilderness, the Forest Service is threatening to close a portion of the motorized mecca.

The Middle Mountain Road above Tuckerville has been especially problematic as off-road vehicles have repeatedly strayed beyond “closed” signs and into the wilderness, where motors are prohibited. In 2009, chronic violations were reported involving ORVs and pickup trucks driving cross-county into the wilderness, past signs reading, “No Motorized Vehicles Beyond this Point.” In 2010, a wildlife camera recorded 10 ATVs violating the closure and a pickup with a camper overnighting just past the sign. On Aug.13 this year, a private citizen reported that a gate blocking motorized access to the wilderness was forcibly removed. ATV tracks were observed going from the parking area into the wilderness area.  Since then, several additional infractions have occurred.

“This recent willful and destructive act as well as three years of chronic motorized violations into the wilderness is extremely disappointing,” said Matt Janowiak, Columbine District Ranger. “We feel it is unfortunate that a small group of the motorized community has undermined the good work of responsible motorized users.”

Unless the most recent perpetrators come forward, Janowiak said that the Forest Service will be forced to restrict access on the Middle Mountain Road and move the closure gate closer to Tuckerville.

“Three years ago, the motorized community told us that allowing motorized use to the edge of the wilderness at this parking lot would not encourage intrusions,” Janowiak said. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case. We take protection of wilderness very seriously and will continue to enforce our motorized regulations.”

Pikas holding their own in the region
In spite of initial concerns, a longtime resident of the San Juan Mountains appears to be riding out global warming. The American pika, a small hamster-like mammal considered a bellwether for climate change, is holding its own in the Southern Rockies, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

Led by CU-Boulder doctoral student Liesl Erb, the study assessed 69 historical sites known to host pikas in the Southern Rockies, from southern Wyoming to northern New Mexico. Results showed that 65 of the 69 sites – some dating back more than a century – were still occupied by the round-eared, hamster-like mammals.

The new study stands in contrast to a 2011 one in Nevada’s Great Basin that showed extinction rates of pika populations increasing nearly five-fold over the last decade. Great Basin pika populations have also moved up in elevation nearly 500 feet in the past 10 years, a migration believed to be triggered by warming temperatures.

In contrast, the CU-Boulder team found that the pattern of pika disappearance in the Southern Rockies was not random. “The sites that had been abandoned by pikas in our study area all were drier on average than the occupied sites,” Erb said.

One likely reason for the relative success of pikas in the Southern Rockies is that available habitats are higher in elevation and are more contiguous than habitats in Nevada’s Great Basin.

However, the American pika is by no means out of the woods. Several climate models are predicting drier conditions in parts of the Southern Rockies in the coming decades as the climate warms.

“It is good news that pikas are doing better in the Southern Rocky Mountains than some other places,” said Erb. “It is likely that the geographic traits of the Rockies are a big reason why we are not seeing significant declines, at least not yet.”

Members of the rabbit family, pikas can be seen scurrying about talus slopes in alpine and subalpine regions of the Rockies and emitting their signature, high-pitched squeaks. Instead of hibernating, pikas cache huge amounts of plants and flowers known as “hay piles” under large rocks that sustain them through the long winters.

Court dismisses Navajo Mine appeal
Coal-fired power has suffered another setback. In late August, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a decision that the federal Office of Surface Mining violated the National Environmental Policy Act in its approval of an expansion of the nearby Navajo Mine.

In 2007, Diné CARE and San Juan Citizens Alliance filed suit in district court alleging that the OSM had approved an inadequate environmental assessment for the expansion of the 33,000-acre Navajo Mine. The mine is located not far from Farmington and is the fuel source for the mine-mouth Four Corners Power Plant.

Two months later, the court ruled in favor of Diné CARE and the Citizens Alliance. BHP, the Navajo Mine’s owner, and Office of Surface Mining then appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, Office of Surface Mining soon dropped its objection, complied with the court’s remand order and started the EA anew. On Aug. 26, the suit dismissed BHP’s appeal in its entirety.

“Justice has been served,” said Sarah Jane White, of Diné CARE. “BHP has to follow the law like everyone else.”

Animas Mountain chipping proposed
Animas Mountain is returning to the spotlight. Though the controversial fuels reduction on the popular recreation area is complete, the San Juan Public Lands Center is now proposing to dispose of slash piles by chipping and mowing instead of burning.

“The reason for the proposed change in slash disposal method is to accomplish it in a more expedient timeframe,” said Camela Hooley, Forest Service Environmental Coordinator. “If the BLM were to burn the piles as originally planned, it would likely take an additional two to three years. The BLM was able to obtain funding to have the piles chipped instead.”

Chips would be directed away from the trails, safety measures would be implemented and winter closures for big game would be observed. No further cutting or thinning will be done.

Public input on the proposal will be accepted through Sept. 23 and can be sent by e-mail to mjjanowiak@fs.fed.us.

– Will Sands