Tearing it up in the backcountry | VailDaily.com

Tearing it up in the backcountry

Cliff Thompson

ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles being used to illegally access roadless areas of the forest, lie at the heart of a growing conflict between wilderness values and mechanized transport.

“They’re terrible,” says outfitter Dan Harrison, who operates Challenge Outfitters in the Piney River drainage, 15 miles northwest of Vail.

“We had our outfitter campsite at Piney Station and we had so much vandalism we had to move base camp onto private land.”

Harrison accesses his camps by horse and promotes the remoteness of his camps to his clients, charging them up to $3,000 for a week of elk and deer hunting on the edge of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

But ATVs are spoiling the backcountry experience for his clients, he says.

Horse trails to roads

“They’re using horse trails, and every year they get farther and farther down the trail,” he says. “It’s now a tool for road-hunting the wilderness.”

Last hunting season, a horse trail broadened by ATV use was used by a person driving a full-sized Chevy Blazer. Harrison says the driver pulled right up to his supposedly remote campsite.

Another outfitter, Dan Eckert of Triple G Outfitters, also hunts the Piney River drainage in the Big Park and Lava Lakes area.

“We had to stop doing drop camps for hunters,” he says. “It’s just getting worse because there’s just more of them. They’re not going to get their elk on an ATV. They’re just running off the game and causing habitat degradation. Every year they come in a little farther and farther. It’s just horrible up in there.”

Eckert’s clients access the remote area by horseback and expect a remote hunt, far from the sounds of mechanized travel, he says. But that’s not what they’re experiencing.

“It’s not a pleasant experience when ATV rides right past your tents,” Eckert says.

Not all ATV riders ride off-road, Eckert and Harrison say. It’s a few who are creating many issues for the rest.

“Blatant disregard’

Vehicle use on the 2.4 million-acre White River National Forest is restricted to bonafide roads and trails. And the U.S. Forest Service is well-aware of the ATV problem, says Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein.

“There’s absolutely no regard for responsible use of public lands,” he says. “It’s getting worse because of the increasing motorized backcountry use.”

Wettstein says the off-road vehicle industry promotes the go-anywhere ability of the machines, and that’s what people expect to do that once they clamber aboard.

“It’s pretty disconcerting to see blatant disregard for public lands,” he said. It boils down to money, he says, or the lack thereof.

“Across the board, there are inadequate budgets to manage forest lands,” he said.

Wettstein says it would take three full-time law enforcement officers in the field to stem the illegal riding. But catching people who are riding illegally off-road falls to Tom Healy, the lone Forest Service law-enforcement officer for the 800,000 acres of the Eagle, Holy Cross and Dillon districts of the White River National Forest.

“It’s a difficult mind-set to deal with,” Healy says. “People just think it’s their right to go wherever they want, wherever the machine can take them. It’s not legal to do that.”

One of the worst areas for off-road vehicle abuse is Red and White Mountain north of Avon, Healy says. There, it’s not just ATVs, but motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles cutting illegal roads and trails.

“They’re creating new roads there as fast as we can close them,” he says. “It’s very popular and there’s tons of off-road activity.”

Most hunters with ATVs take to the backcountry during Colorado’s big-game hunting seasons, Healy adds.

“We’re seeing more violations in hunting season than we used to, in part because we’re seeing more people use ATVs instead of horses,” he says.

The progression from trail to ATV trail to road can be pretty swift.

“We wind up with a road and with impacts that depend on the steepness and erosion,” Healy says. “Biologists said it is not a good thing for a number of species sensitive to amount of disturbance.”

ATV riders who are off-road can be fined $75 for a first offense, Healy says. Subsequent infractions can land the violator before a federal magistrate facing a $5,000 fine for a blatant infraction.

Chasing ghosts

Finding evidence of illegal off-road use is easy; catching people in the act is tougher. Since the start of the first hunting season last Saturday, he has yet to issue a ticket.

“I’ve chased a lot of ghosts,” Healy said. “I haven’t found anything yet but tracks.”

Colorado Division of Wildlife officers are in the field, too, and while they cannot ticket violators, they can stop them and take down information Healy can use to send a ticket after the fact.

It’s the speed with which the new roads are appearing that has raised a number of red flags for the Forest Service.

“It’s kind of exploding,” says Healy, who has been with the Forest Service in this area for 15 years. “It’s caught us off-guard.’

Wettstein says the problem may stem from the increased number of hunters taking to the field.

“As more and more people hunt, they feel the need to get farther and farther afield, so they get an ATV,” he says.

This year, as many as 400,000 deer and elk hunters will take to Colorado’s hills, according to state Division of Wildlife estimates.

Lots of use

A study conducted by Hazen and Sawyer Engineers and Scientists on the economic contribution of off-highway vehicle use for Colorado shows as many as 32,800 ATVs a year are used in Colorado by residents and non-residents. Dirt-bike numbers were estimated at 23,000, and four-wheel drive off-road vehicle numbers were estimated at 64,800.

That volume creates some issues, particularly with ATVs, which are smaller, lighter and can go nearly anywhere.

“The new technology and advertising and you see they’re blasting through stuff,” says Wendy Haskins, transportation planner for the White River forest. “We don’t have places we can handle that kind of use because of the environmental impacts.”

Haskins said it creates a dilemma for land managers.

“We want to provide different levels of trails so they can have fun,” she says. “A lot of hunters would prefer people stay on roads and trails so it doesn’t spoil the hunt.”

Haskins says a number of off-road clubs are actively helping public agencies police off-road vehicle use.

“It’s a cooperative-educational thing between government and the public,” she says.

The issue of off-road vehicles is not isolated to the Whiter River National Forest, either. It’s been a problem throughout the Rocky Mountain region, says Glenda Wilson, regional engineer for the Forest Service’s five-state Rocky Mountain region.

“Off-road vehicle use has been a problem for a number of years,” she says, adding that knowledge of backcountry impacts from use has been lost as the type of visitor to forests changes from rural resident to urban resident.

“If you’re raised in a city with asphalt and concrete, you have a different appreciation of how you treat nature so it will be the same on the second visit as it was on the first,” she says.

Successful management of the forest has resulted from a combination of a travel management plan, adequate signage and enforcement, and users who care enough to encourage responsible use by others.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism