Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
December 1999 / January 2000


Motorized Trends in Colorado

by Kirk Cunningham, Chapter Conservation Chair

In the last few years, the community of motorized recreationists (“ORVers”) has gotten a lot more organized, with the goal of effectively setting aside more of the public lands for their use. It appears that they are crafting ever more convincing and “professional-sounding” ways of couching their demands. And the Forest Service is buying these arguments.

Many of the ORV demands are presented as “opportunities we need desperately for ourselves and our children.” As with any anthropocentric argument, whether for higher wages, disaster relief or some other pressing human need, this argument may sound more urgent to the Forest Service than arguments for biodiversity protection. We are at a disadvantage because the backcountry trails desired by the ORVers are not used much by us, and hikers are not expressing the same desperate urgency that these trails be kept open for hiking.

Here are some recent developments with motorized use in Colorado’s National Forests:

A recreation staffer applied a “desirability” test to the Long Canyon area of the Uncompahgre Plateau and found that the trail system should become a motorized trail, because it was “too long” for day hiking. So ORVers superior speed and mobility meant they got a trail and hikers lost one.

ATVers have convinced the Pagosa Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest that they need ATV trails up to the boundaries of the Weminuche Wilderness in order to get their “families” close enough to enjoy a nonmotorized wilderness hike. Where does that leave the nonmotorized families with no ATVs who have to park their cars miles from the boundary and hike their children in?

The Colorado 500 organization is getting the Forest Service’s ear in their plea for a continuous motorized trail from Colorado Springs to Durango “for their children and grandchildren.”

ORVers are expressing their demands in terms of the “riding days” that are provided by a given national forest. For example, the Uncompahgre National Forest provides “only five riding days” of motorized trail. Since the mileage requirements of ORVers (and even mountain bikers) are closer to those of automobiles than to hikers and horse, this is a game we can never win. Should public lands be required to meet a demand better met by highway systems? What happened to the ideas of wilderness advocate Bob Marshall, who envisioned wildlands so large that it would take two weeks to hike across them?

A trail-making machine in one ranger district is widening single track motorcycle trails into ATV trails, which will displace motorized single track demand yet further into unmotorized backcountry.

The snowmobile grooming machines funded by hundreds of thousands of state trails dollars are a major factor in the explosion in snowmobile use. Around Wolf Creek Pass the area of snowmobile expansion, just in the last two years, dwarfs the footprint of the Wolf Creek ski area whose expansion people are very worried about.

State trails money allows illegal trails which should be closed due to resource damage to stay open by fixing the resource damage. The only criteria some ranger districts are using for closing user created motorized trails is whether the damage they are creating can be “fixed.” If so, the trail is added to the system, regardless of whether it should exist in the first place. There is no upper limit to the money the state trails program will have in coming years to “fix” illegal trails.

The Pagosa Ranger District thinks the district is too skewed in the direction of nonmotorized recreation and has invited the COHVCO (Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition) to identify new motorized routes for the Forest Plan revision in an old logging area bordering the south San Juan wilderness (Nipple Mt and Mill Creek).

Clearing ponderosa understory in preparation for fire reintroduction in the Pagosa Ranger district makes areas more accessible to mountain bikes. “Open” mountain bike areas are developing in the San Juan NF, where trails can go cross country, just at the time that the Arapaho-Roosevelt is trying to institute a ban on off-trail mountain bike use.

Motorized development is expanding right up to wilderness boundaries in the Paonia, Taylor Cebolla, Pagosa, Ouray and Sopris Ranger Districts. The semi-primitive recreation opportunity class is disappearing from the landscape as everything but wilderness becomes motorized. Loss of semi-primitive appears to be an emerging issue.

So, as they say, happy trails. And if you would like the Rocky Mountain Chapter to deal with motorized uses in the National Forest, call Kirk Cunningham at 303-939-8519 (day, evening).

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