Trail users collide in crowded forests in Colorado
The Denver Post
Durango outfitter Sandy Young was leading a string of horses up the San Juan National Forest’s Hermosa Creek Trail when she heard the buzz of dirt bikes and knew she’d better pull the horses to the edge of the path.
“I could see ’em coming, and I was shouting, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ But dirt bikers and mountain bikers, they just keep their nose to the trail,” Young said. “He was just a few yards away when he saw me and stopped, but the biker behind slammed right into him.”
It was just another day on the trails of Colorado’s national forests, the most heavily used for recreation in the nation.
Colorado – with about 27.1 million forest visitors, more than any other state – is ground zero in the effort to stop riders and hikers from bushwhacking their own trails and in sorting out the sometimes conflicting uses.
“People go to the forest with expectations – a quiet hike, motoring through the woods. When those expectations clash, you get tensions,” said Peter Newman, a Colorado State University professor studying natural resources and recreation.
In 2005, the burgeoning and unmanaged recreation in national forests was classed along with wildfire as a major threat and a nationwide process was mandated to rein in the mountain bikers and off-road vehicle riders.
In Colorado, the Forest Service is planning for trail use on 14 million acres, and the federal Bureau of Land Management is doing the same on another 9 million acres.
The process, called travel management planning, will determine where Coloradans – and state residents are the prime users, surveys show – can hike, bike and ride their off-road vehicles, and where trails will be closed and cross-country travel banned.
“The goal for BLM is to provide those unique recreation opportunities where we can, while protecting the natural resource,” said bureau spokesman Steve Hall.
The exercise is sparking intense lobbying efforts by competing recreation groups.
“After this, it’s unlikely we’ll see any new trails,” said Len Zanni of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.
One thing the plans will do is tighten trail enforcement.
Under the current rules, trails are open unless marked closed, and over the years, thousands of miles of unauthorized trails had been made by recreationists.
“It was a free-for-all,” said Chris Sporl, head of the Forest Service’s regional travel management team. “It was very hard for our law enforcement officers to deal with.”
Now, everyone will have to stay on designated trails – some of which will not be open to off-road vehicles and mountain bikes – or face fines of $250.
“We are trying to respond to a revolution over the last 20 years in recreation use in the national forests,” Sporl said.
When the last sets of national forest and BLM plans were drawn up – in some cases more than 20 years ago – there were no mountain bikes or all-terrain vehicles causing problems.
In the past two decades, however, forest use by motorized vehicles has exploded.
In 1991, there were 11,700 registered off-road vehicles in Colorado, state records show. By 2005, it was 100,785, and this June it reached 132,166.
“The real growth came in the last decade, when vehicles that were easier to use, particularly 4-wheeled ATVs, came on the market,” said Gary Wilkinson, a spokesman for the recreation group San Juan Trail Riders.
“That has created a challenge,” Wilkinson said.
Wendy Haskins, the travel management planner for White River National Forest – the most-visited forest in the nation – says the challenge is striking a balance between handling volume, separating users and protecting natural resources.
“We can’t do everything, so there are choices to be made,” Haskins said.
Each forest unit and BLM unit is doing its own planning, and each is at different stages toward completion.
Some of the most detailed plans, so far, have come from White River, Gunnison and San Juan national forests and BLM districts in Montrose, Steamboat Springs and Gunnison.
Among the options emerging from in the draft plans are:
• Banning cross-country travel by off-road vehicles.
• Closing “social” or unauthorized trails. In White River National Forest, 814 miles of the 1,095 miles of unauthorized trails are set to be closed. In Gunnison National Forest, 97 percent of the user-made roads are targeted for closure.
• Separating uses where possible. On White River, for example, areas around cross-country ski huts will be off-limits to snowmobiles.
• Instituting seasonal trail closures for wildlife, such as mountain sheep, elk and the Gunnison sage grouse.
• Regrading, renovating or closing steep trails where loss of vegetation and erosion are problems.
Each proposed plan is being scrutinized by local recreation groups, and despite the tensions and competing interests, there is also common ground.
A couple of weeks ago, hikers and mountain bikers gathered at the Riverside Grill in Basalt to go over a map of a proposed wilderness area in the White River forest.
The Colorado Mountain Club is supporting the proposed Hidden Gems Wilderness Area north of Vail, which would be open to hikers. The wilderness area boundaries, however, cut through key connecting bike routes.
“We were concerned about expanding Hidden Gems,” said Zanni of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.
“Both sides gave up a few things,” Zanni said, “though there are some things we are just going to have to disagree upon.”
Clare Barnstable, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, said advocates of the wilderness area were willing to redraw boundaries to gain support for the proposal.
“But the bottom line is that we aren’t going to resolve every trail and boundary dispute,” she said.
Down on the San Juan forest, Durango outfitter Young has followed the plan for Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, and Wilkinson has done so for the off-highway vehicle group San Juan Trail Riders.
And despite an incident like the dirt-bike crash on the Hermosa Trail, Young and Wilkinson sound a very similar note.
“Horsemen like a quiet trail,” Young said, “but split use means less opportunity for everyone.”
Wilkinson said that separating uses is “segregation.”
Members of the OHV community say they feel they are bearing the brunt of the plans – as thousands of acres are taken out of cross-country use and the number of trails is being limited for jeep, ATV and dirt-bike riders.
“These plans, going from everything is open to everything is closed, are a complete 180-degree change for the off-road community,” Wilkinson said. “There is a lot of concern.”
It is particularly frustrating, Wilkinson said, because of the growing numbers of riders and the fact that through state registration fees the OHV community provided $3.1 million for trail restoration and maintenance this past year.
“Fewer trails and more and more bikes and ATVs sound like a recipe for congestion,” he said.
“This isn’t an easy exercise, and we will have to go back again and again to deal with changing use,” said the Forest Service’s Sporl. “This is just a beginning.”
And in the end, it may just come down to how people treat one another.
Riding a trail in BLM’s Hartman Rocks, outside Gunnison, Dave Weins, a champion mountain bike racer, said he encountered a dirt biker who swung wide off the trail to give him room.
“I waved him down and said, ‘Hey, man, I know you were trying to be polite, but we want to keep the trail and not widen it. I can stop for you; we all have to live on the trail.’ “
Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or firstname.lastname@example.org