Tearing up the backcountry: | PostIndependent.com

Tearing up the backcountry:

Cliff Thompson
The Vail Daily

Parts of the backcountry in the White River National Forest are under assault this hunting season by machines that have the ability to go just about anywhere.

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

“They’re terrible,” said 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 travels to 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.

“They’re using horse trails, and every year they get farther and farther down the trail,” he said.

Last hunting season, a horse trail broadened by ATVs was used by someone driving a full-sized Chevy Blazer. Harrison said 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.

“It’s just getting worse because there’s just more of them,” he said. “They’re not going to get their elk on an ATV. They’re just running off the game and causing habitat degradation. … It’s just horrible up in there.”

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

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

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

Blatant disregard

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

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 said 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.

“People just think it’s their right to go wherever they want, wherever the machine can take them,” Healy said. “It’s not legal to do that.”

In some areas, Healy said, 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 said.

Hunters with ATVs take to the backcountry during Colorado’s big-game hunting seasons, Healy added.

“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.

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, Healy has yet to issue a ticket.

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

“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.

Wendy Haskins, transportation planner for the White River forest, said a number of off-road clubs are actively helping public agencies police off-road vehicle use.

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.

The problem has gotten worse 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.

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