U.S. Forest Service cracks down on illegal trails in Pike National Forest | SummitDaily.com

U.S. Forest Service cracks down on illegal trails in Pike National Forest

All U.S. Forest Service trails are labeled with bright yellow signs with accepted use, including this one in the Pike National Forest that's open to horses or hikers and closed to motorized vehicles.
South Park Ranger District / Special to the Daily |

PARK COUNTY — It’s a great experience exploring the Pike National Forest from the seat of an ATV, UTV or dirt bike. Picture yourself riding along an unknown expanse of forest on a beautiful autumn day: The sky is brilliant, cornflower blue and the changing aspen leaves have peaked to shades of gold and orange.

It’s a perfect way to unwind after a busy week. There’s something to be said about taking the machine out to full throttle, skidding the corners and jumping the bumps to take one’s mind off the nit-picky office politics of a brain-numbing job.

But no matter the style, one needs to be careful to stay on authorized roads.

In a motorized vehicle, it only takes a single ride over untrampled terrain to leave a slight trail. Once the trail is visible, other riders tend to follow it. Each time it’s used, the track widens and deepens until it resembles a legitimate road.

Long, costly projects

In some areas of Pike National Forest — found on the southeastern border of Summit County — natural forest vegetation acreage is outpaced by illegal trails. Forest employees have a tough time keeping up with the influx of illegal routes made by a few ATV enthusiasts, and the damage is costing the public dearly.

On a work day earlier this fall, a 10-person crew spent half a day blocking off illegal routes and picking up trash near Forest Roads 146 and 831, accessible through the Buffalo Subdivision southeast of Como.

The cost outside of Como was about $2,000 in labor and supplies. That figure pales in comparison to the work that began in the summer of 2014 and will continue for an estimated 10 years at Badger Flats near Tarryall Road.

“There you’re talking real money,” said Josh Voorhis, district ranger for the Fairplay-based South Park Ranger District.

The Badger Flats project involves blocking off and reclaiming 300 miles of illegal routes and installing informational kiosks at popular sites inside Badger Flats. The U.S. Forest Service strives to keep the kiosks stocked with motor vehicle use maps, showing which routes are legal roads within South Park Ranger District.

So far the project has cost the public $30,000, and it’s not done yet, Voorhis said. Crews, who work as time and materials are available, have logged eight weekend workdays since the project started. In addition, volunteer crews have logged approximately 400 hours. The estimated value of their time is $32,000, and — together — the groups have only reclaimed about 20 miles of land.

Protecting land — and users

While a 300-mile closure may seem like a lot, there are still about 130 miles of legal roads for public use in Badger Flats. And that’s only a small portion of the nearly 1,000 total miles of roads within the South Park Ranger District.

Some of the illegal routes have been traveled for years, and there are many reasons the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t turn illegal routes into legal roads.

For starters, driving through wetlands and up steep slopes causes erosion and destroys ecosystems that take years to regenerate. Another concern is safety. When off-road riders broke through a crusty layer of rock covering the tailings of a former beryllium mining site near Lake George, it was one of the first areas U.S. Forest Service crews decided to reclaim.

Another key reason is fragmented wildlife habitat, according to South Park Ranger District natural resource specialist Sheila Lamb. Animals need space, she said. They need the ability to move freely through differing landscapes. When motor vehicles cross through wildlife habitat, they create noises that can intimidate wildlife. Illegal routes also tear up grass, forage grounds and watering holes — the very life substance of our wildlife. If illegal travel gets too severe, elk, deer, pronghorn and moose — animals that attract many people to the forest — may move away, taking with them one reason that many hunters, photographers and sightseers visit South Park.

Kristen Meyer, wildlife biologist at the South Park Ranger District, agrees with Lamb. She said noise and increased human presence are the greatest impacts to animals living in the forest. All wildlife species seek out quiet and solitude, she said, and so do many of the human visitors to the Pike National Forest.

Meyer said that if the rules are obeyed, there is room in the forest for both recreationists and wildlife.

Forest care

The U.S. Forest Service makes motorized travel rules and regulations available throughout the year. Before heading to a local forest, pick up a motor vehicle use map, so you know what roads are legal. They are available for free at the South Park Ranger District office in Fairplay and other district offices for the Pike and San Isabel national forests.

You can also find maps for Arapahoe and White River national forests at the Dillon Ranger District station in Silverthorne.

Register your unlicensed off-road vehicles with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. A $25.25 annual sticker is good for off-highway use on all legal ATV roads in Colorado and can be bought online or at various locations throughout the state, including most ranger district offices.

Laura Van Dusen is a ranger with the South Park Ranger District, home to Pike National Forest. The Pike National Forest was established in 1907 and is one of Park County’s oldest assets.

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