It may not be a popular decision for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers feeling cooped up during the coronavirus outbreak, but it does appear San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad has the legal authority to close public lands under his oversight.
On Saturday, Conrad enacted what he initially called a “locals only” policy for his county, limiting all visits to the small mountain town north of Durango to residents and essential services only, and shutting off the backcountry to visitors.
Conrad said his deputies would be checking the license plates of cars parked at trailheads, and if they weren’t registered in San Juan County, those who disobeyed the order faced a $5,000 fine or 18 months in jail.
The decision to close popular backcountry spots in San Juan County located on U.S. Forest Service lands, however, was met with backlash from some in the community who said Conrad was overstepping his authority.
Even La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff had residents reach out to her to complain and ask she raise the issue with Durango’s neighbors to the north and advocate for reopening the lands.
“My feeling is San Juan County is doing what they believe is in the best interest of their community,” she said. “That’s their business. They know their community, and they know how best to protect it.”
Conrad himself justified the move by invoking Colorado Revised Statute 25-1-114(1), which says it is illegal to disobey a public health law.
On Monday, San Juan County Public Health issued a shelter-in-place order that banned unnecessary travel to the county, so by law, Conrad and his deputies have an obligation to enforce it, he said.
“We have banned non-essential travel,” Conrad said. “Traveling to San Juan County to ski is not essential.”
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith agreed with Conrad’s interpretation of the law as it pertains to enforcing health orders.
“It does fall to us on to deal with people-related issues on public lands,” Smith said. “And public health is a people issue.”
Whether county sheriffs have blanket authority to close public lands at any time is an ongoing and controversial legal question, Smith said, which would “require a legal scholar.”
Esther Godson, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest, cited a federal law – 16 U.S. Code 480 – that says state and local authorities “generally have the same authorities and responsibilities” on public lands in their jurisdiction.
Godson said across the West, county sheriffs are enacting closures similar to San Juan County.
“In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, we are aligning with state and local authorities where they do have jurisdiction,” she said.
Yet there remains one unanswered detail to the closure: Silverton and San Juan County residents aren’t banned from backcountry areas accessed off U.S. Highway 550 like outsiders are.
The Forest Service did not provide more information Tuesday about whether sheriffs can close federal lands at all times or explain if it is legal to close public lands to some members of the public but not others.
Conrad, for his part, said, “The intent is to stop spread and to minimize the risk of our emergency services having to go out.” He added local residents are encouraged, but not ordered, to recreate around town instead.
Contacted Tuesday, Conrad said that since the order was enacted, people have been cooperative, save for a few who have spoken out on social media.
Later admitting that “locals only” was a poor choice of words, Conrad said the heart of the restrictions remain the same: to protect the town’s 600 or so residents from the spread of the coronavirus.
San Juan County has had no confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday, yet surrounding communities, like La Plata and San Miguel, have reported positive cases.
“These are not extreme measures in these extraordinary times, and we are not the first community to enact them,” Conrad wrote in his order.
San Miguel County, for instance, has issued a shelter-in-place order. It has not, however, banned access to the backcountry for skiers and other wintertime recreationists.
Smith said that since San Juan County’s order has been in place, there has been an uptick in recreation at hot spots around La Plata Canyon and Lemon Reservoir.
“Obviously, we don’t support that,” Smith said. “Even though you may participate in an activity that doesn’t expose you to others, you run the risk of getting stuck or having a medical emergency in the backcountry.
“Then others need to come to your aid, like La Plata County Search and Rescue, and you can expose them.”
San Juan Basin Public Health – the La Plata County’s health agency – issued a stay-at-home advisory Monday, not an order that is enforceable. But health officials say if people don’t listen, an order could be on the way.