When it comes to ATVs, everyone’s making noise

A large group of ATVers breaks down a gate and rumbles into federally designated wilderness, breaking the law.

If you’re a hiker, a horseman or even a responsible all-terrain vehicle user, you’re incensed. But what do you do? You’ve seen this before, and you’re frustrated. You’re noting the litany:

In Southeast Utah’s Recapture Canyon this issue has caused an ugly ruckus, pitting environmentalists against locals who don’t want their land use regulated by the feds.

In Livingston, Mont., an illegal ATV trail on the Gallatin National Forest landed a man a five-month federal prison sentence and $25,000 restitution fee.

Most recently, an ATV intrusion into the Weminuche Wilderness near Tuckerville prompted the off-highway vehicle group Creeper Jeepers to offer a $500 bounty to catch the perpetrator and an activist/hunter to suggest loudly that ATVs should have license plates.

Who is most angry? You might think it’s the quiet-seeking backwoods type, but really it’s more of a tossup between them and the legitimate ATV clubs.

“Obviously, we are upset with what’s going on (at Tuckerville), too,” said Belinda Snow, president of the 20-plus-member Rocky Mountain Ramblers ATV club, formed in 2006. “We really are trying to defend our right to be in the forest. ... There are people out there screwing it up for us.”

Larry Eads, who works for the nonprofit organization Tread Lightly, travels around the country to teach others how to educate their organizations on proper trail use. So obviously, he’s big on education. He’s also a believer in establishing relationships, whether it’s the local roundtable that brings multiple types of trail users together or just a spur-of-the-moment encounter. What do you do if you see an ATV being ridden illegally?

“That’s really a tough issue,” Eads said. “First, build a relationship, and you’ve got maybe 30 seconds to do it. If your first words are ‘What the hell are you doing?’ you’ve lost your opportunity.”

Raise the issue, attempt to educate and back off if the person you’re talking to isn’t cooperative, he said.

ATVs and OHVs, and their users, are not evil, he said.

“The problem is they’ve become so popular, and there are significant numbers of people who use them irresponsibly, that it has become a problem for our land agencies,” he said.

ATVs have no IDs

And the land agencies – around here, that’s the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management – don’t have adequate manpower to patrol their vast spaces. A substitute to actual patrollers – a remote camera – caught ATVers trespassing past Tuckerville last year. But the perpetrators had no identifying marks.

Thus the cry for license plates for ATVs. Harder to remain incognito when a large metal tag is prominent on your vehicle.

“People logically are less reckless when they know someone might ‘get their number,’” author/hunter/conservationist David Petersen wrote in a recent, widely read letter to The Durango Herald.

Petersen said during a phone conversation last week that improper ATV use is the “No. 1 political issue in my life.”

“The worst mistake the Forest Service and BLM ever made was to accept motorized vehicles as a legitimate backcountry use,” he said. “Our public lands – wildlife habitat, watersheds, a place for quiet human retreat – are not a motorized playground. In a sane world, this desecration would be unthinkable.”

Anyone for compromise?

After conducting multiple interviews for this story with a broad spectrum of forest users, it’s apparent that not everyone is going to see eye to eye. But perhaps there is room for compromise. With that goal in mind, the San Juan Mountains Association conducts the Southwest Colorado Trails Roundtable twice a year. Motorbikes, four-wheelers, ATVs, hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers – all are represented along with the federal land agencies. The next meeting is set for Nov. 15.

“I like to operate on the view that people will do the right thing if they know what that is,” said Kathe Hayes, the association’s volunteer program director who facilitates the roundtable. But, she added, “There’s just some renegade people that aren’t going to respect anything.”

Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness understand well that last statement. The broads, who have 36 chapters in 15 states, have found themselves battling with scofflaws in Utah’s Recapture Canyon east of Blanding.

ATVers have continued to use an illegal trail after it was closed by the BLM in 2007. In January, a U.S. magistrate judge fined two Blanding men $35,000 and put them on probation for creating the trail through an area thick with archaeological sites. Also in January, several “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters targeting Great Old Broads were distributed around Blanding.

“Everybody has a right to enjoy public lands,” said Rose Chilcoat, Great Old Broads’ associate director. “Nobody has the right to destroy another’s experience.”

The ‘expectation difference’

There is an “experiential expectation difference” between user groups, Chilcoat said. Motorized vehicle use has exploded, the machines have improved, and now ATVs can go farther and into areas once inaccessible.

“There’s a point where we say, ‘Keep the motorized vehicles out,’” Chilcoat said.

Lenny Baker, president of Pagosa Trail Riders, an all-terrain vehicle club in Pagosa Springs, said the main problems are caused by the younger riders in combination with alcohol and by those who are unaware of their surroundings. For the latter group, there are solutions.

“Number one, know where you’re at,” Baker said.

Take a map. Obey signs, and most of all, use common sense, he emphasized.

Above Vallecito Reservoir on Middle Mountain Road, just past the long-abandoned townsite of Tuckerville, several ATVs broke through a gate this summer and drove into the wilderness. If he had seen that vandalism taking place, he would have taken notes and photos and reported it. Being associated with such actions rubs him wrong and, in this case, could harm ATV access.

“It really bothers us because we’re out there doing everything in our power to keep what we have,” Baker said. “That reflects on all of us.”

A gate with large boulders

Matt Janowiak, the Forest Service’s Columbine District ranger dealing with the Tuckerville situation, expressed his frustration last week during a phone interview.

Next year, Janowiak said, a new gate, backed up by “extremely” large boulders, will close the road at Tuckerville. It has been open for about another mile past Tuckerville to the wilderness border, from where it’s an easy walk to a beautiful overlook.

“Good people will be kept out that we’ve been working with,” he said. “I hate having to do this, but at the same time, I have to honor the resource that is wilderness.”

Petersen, a bowhunter who has done work for Trout Unlimited and helped found Backcountry Hunters and Anglers several years ago, said ATVers have cost him some of his favorite hunting places. Where he once hiked a half-mile in to hunt, now ATVs and dirt bikes have entered by making new trails, and elk retreat accordingly.

Who’s affecting whom?

It’s difficult to take a live-and-let-live attitude with vehicles in the backcountry, he said. A hunter walking silently through the woods has little or no effect on an ATVer, whereas, “They’re impacting on me in multiple ways.

“There’s something about ‘personal motorized vehicles’ – ATVs, dirt bikes, snow machines and Jet Skis – that reduces the emotional age of the average user to 14.”

A renegade hiker or even mountain biker generally doesn’t do a whole lot of trail or forest damage. But by its nature, a renegade ATV leaves a huge mark. Rocky Mountain Ramblers’ Snow recognizes that. The Ramblers have no problem with requiring license plates for ATVs.

“Isn’t that how it is? There’s always a few that are going to ruin it for all of us,” Snow said. “The few who are bad get spotlighted.”

Eads, who serves on the San Juan Mountains Association and Colorado Trail Foundation boards, remains optimistic. He sees room for hope, especially here, where hikers are ATVers and mountain bikers are dirt bikers.

“That’s kind of the story here in my mind,” Eads said. “There’s lots of different opportunities here for people.”

This issue isn’t going away soon. Just be responsible and communicate, most everyone interviewed for this story agreed. Maybe, just maybe, we can find ways to all get along.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.