Visions clash in roadless debate
If you talk to Tony Vagneur and Ed Pfab about what some folks who drive off-road vehicles in the White River National Forest are doing to the land there, you can almost feel their blood pressures spike. “I see it every fall,” when some hunters – “from Texas,” says Pfab, who lives near Basalt – use their all-terrain vehicles to get into the woods. “These people are totally out of control with these four-wheelers,” he said. Vagneur is a Forest Service volunteer, cowboy and Aspen Times columnist who grew up in Woody Creek and regularly keeps an eye out for “bandit trail” users – those who he says wreak havoc on the land by illegally creating their own trails with their jeeps or riding their four-wheelers on roads or trails in the forest that are closed to motorized vehicles. “Those people are going to ruin the national forest,” he said. “They have no idea the damage they do. They’ll ride right by signs. … It might be just a few. It seems like it’s all of them.”Vagneur and Pfab and forest users like them are part of a heated debate about the place of motorized vehicles in the White River National Forest. Forest Service officials and environmentalists say damage from illegal vehicle use is severe in some areas, often doing significant ecological damage to the forest.Off-roaders say it’s just a few who are doing damage, while most riders stay on designated trails and clean up after themselves. And while some trails need to be closed as environmentalists would like, new rough-terrain motorized vehicle trails need to be built to accommodate the ever-increasing number of people who get their backcountry kicks in jeeps and ATVs, said Chris Overacker, president of Basalt-based High Country Four-Wheelers. How motorized vehicles will be managed in the WRNF will likely be front-and-center at the June 21 Colorado Roadless Area Task Force meeting in Glenwood Springs, where people will give the state their two cents about what they think should be the fate of the WRNF’s 640,000 acres of roadless land. At about the same time, WRNF officials will unveil a rewritten forest “travel management plan” that will determine where motorized vehicles are allowed to go in the forest, and what trails and roads could be closed to their use. WRNF recreation program manager Rich Doak said that as off-roading becomes more popular, two things are true: Motorized vehicle use in the WRNF will increase exponentially – already about 4.4 percent annually and 4,000 percent over current levels by 2050 – and forest officials will spend much of their time policing errant off-roaders. “I will tell you we spend a lot – a very disproportionate amount – of management time trying to manage that use,” Doak said. “We are seeing a very dramatic increase in OHV use, both primarily in motorcycle and especially in ATV.”Just how much use has increased in recent years is unknown because the last data were gathered in 2002, just after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which caused usage to drop a bit. Today, he said, “the only thing that will slow down ATV use is if the price of gasoline gets so astronomical, people drop out of the market.”And just because more off-roaders are in the forest doesn’t mean they’re all doing serious damage to it, he said. “Those who stay on the road and do what they’re supposed to do are very low impact,” Doak said. Evidence of the damage done by those who stray from designated vehicle trails and roads can be seen all over the forest. But, he said, “We figure almost all people are basically good trying to do the right thing, but there is always going to be a minority percentage who don’t have the same respect for other users.”Areas seeing the most damage from illegal motorized vehicle use include places near Basalt Mountain, Red Table, Thompson Creek, Broderick Creek, Richmond Ridge, the Warren Lakes and Smuggler Mountain, among others near Vail and in Summit County. Vagneur said he knows well what errant off-roaders do near Sloans Peak near the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. “You can see where they’ve ridden in the wilderness area,” he said. “Wherever they go, they create a crease in the earth. The next time it rains, it just gets a little deeper. On trails, they get so deep, I’ve seen trails three or four feet deep.”All it takes, he said, is one motorbike to stray from the trail to do serious damage. In the Flat Tops, Doak said, there is little damage caused by off-roaders, “but there’s an incredible opportunity there.” The southern Flat Tops, he said, sees the most damage during hunting season. All the motorized vehicle use in the WRNF begs some questions, Doak said. “When have we exceeded our capacity for handling that demand?” he said. “What is our role in handling that demand?”
Some answers to those questions may be found in the WRNF’s soon-to-be-released travel management plan, Doak said. But environmentalists and off-roaders have competing visions for how the forest should regulate motorized vehicles and what roads and trails should be available for their use. “We’d like to see all of the existing roads stay open,” said Overacker, who owns Code 4×4 in Rifle. “We’re willing to make compromises where we need to.”Greg Noss, land use officer for High Country Four Wheelers, said the WRNF should build new loop trails for four-wheelers. Overacker said he understands that the Forest Service needs to close some roads for environmental reasons, but new roads and trails need to be built to compensate for those forest officials close. More people are venturing into the backcountry with their jeeps, he said, but the Forest Service is making more and more roads and trails off-limits to vehicles. But according to WRNF spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo, “We have not closed any system roads in the last five years,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t gotten rid of roads that never were roads.” In other words, many “bandit” roads or trails created illegally by forest users have been closed, but none that are in the official WRNF road system. Unease over where vehicles are allowed in the forest is a matter of balance, Overacker said. “There’s plenty of wilderness area out there that we’re not allowed in,” he said. “I’m all for that. It’s very important to us. That’s why we’re involved in cleanups. Those other user groups, they can use our roads, but we can’t go in and use theirs. It’s getting out of balance.”To the claim that off-roaders are causing damage to the forest, Overacker said, “We’re not tearing up this terrain, no worse than Mother Nature with a good gullywasher. We’re actually going in and cleaning up. We’re true conservationists.”Overacker said most off-roaders are responsible and do volunteer work cleaning up after themselves and maintaining trails.
Environmentalists don’t all agree about how motorized vehicles should be managed. Some, like Clare Bastable, Western Slope conservation coordinator for the Colorado Mountain Club in Carbondale, believe the WRNF should close some motorized vehicle trails and create new ones that “make sense.”Others, like Dave Reed, development director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, are adamant that no new trails should be built. Bastable said the Colorado Mountain Club is not opposed to motorized vehicle use but wants to make sure all of those vehicles stay on designated routes. Some routes, she said, were added to the forest road system after they were created by forest users without any environmental review. Many of those roads, she said, should be closed because they aren’t sustainable. In their place, a new motorized vehicle trail system that is more environmentally sound should be built, she said. Even though new roads may be necessary, she said, “it just gives me heartburn to think of putting more routes than we have on the national forest.”Bastable also said the WRNF should designate areas for “quiet use,” which, like wilderness areas, promote solitude and an undisturbed nature experience. Unlike wilderness areas, quiet use areas wouldn’t prohibit bicycles. “Quiet use means human-powered recreation,” she said. The Wilderness Workshop is trying to protect the ecological integrity of the forest and its roadless areas, and that means no new motorized vehicle trails, and no new roads – period, Reed said.”We’re not speaking on behalf of hikers or any particular user group,” he said. “Roadless areas are our repository of biological diversity.”Reed said new roads and trails fracture roadless areas and promote wildfire, noxious weeds and resource extraction, which requires even more roads to be built to gas well pads. “If any recreationists think they’ll have a better recreation experience by letting energy companies (drill on the forest), they’ve got another think coming,” he said. “Those are not fun places to recreate in.”
1: Rank of the WRNF among all national forests for amount of recreation use3.5 million: Annual number of non-skiing-related visits to the WRNF210,000: Estimated total off-highway vehicle visits to the WRNF in 20024,000: Estimated percent increase in all-terrain vehicle use on the WRNF by 20501,970: Miles of designated roadway in the WRNF205: Total miles of designated motorized vehicle trails open to motorcycles on the WRNF141: Of the above number, the total miles of designated trails open to all-terrain vehicles on the WRNF210: Total miles of “non-system” roads in the WRNF currently closed to motorized vehicles770: Total miles of “non-system” trails in WRNF currently closed to and often used illegally by mechanized vehicles2.3 million: Total acres in the WRNF640,000: Total acres of WRNF roadless area754,519: Total designated wilderness acres in WRNF, or about one third of the forestSource: White River National Forest
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