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San Juan Mountains take beating this summer from off-roading

Higher-than-normal visitation harms fragile alpine tundra
Land management agencies say people driving off-road and damaging the high-country landscape has become an increasing problem this year as visitation to the backcountry increases.

With trips to the backcountry increasing this year, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic making the outdoors a popular destination, more people are illegally driving off-road, damaging fragile alpine tundra.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the amount of illegal off-road travel by motorized vehicles,” said Paul Blackman, a recreation manager for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pagosa Ranger District. “And it’s definitely an increasing concern.”

The rules for backcountry travel, Blackman said, are simple: Stay on designated roads.

People disregarding the road closures is an issue land management agencies encounter every year, Blackman said. But this summer, it seems more people are driving into off-limits areas, either unaware of the rules or blatantly breaking them.

“We are definitely encountering people that are less inclined to follow the rules than they have in the past,” he said.

San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad has seen much of the same around the high country of the San Juan Mountains that surround Silverton, along with incredible amounts of trash, human waste and people camping in off-limit areas.

“It’s just like we have a different mentality going on these days where people think they’re too special for the rules to apply to them,” Conrad said. “This year has just been insane.”

Most estimates say it takes 100 years for the alpine tundra to recover from damage caused by off-roading. But Michael Remke with Mountain Studies Institute said drought could make it even longer. This photo was taken from within the San Juan National Forest.
A unique landscape

The alpine tundra is a unique and biodiverse landscape in the high country, inhabiting the space between treeline and the mountains’ highest rocky slopes, where no vegetation grows.

The landscape is defined by high winds, short growing seasons and frequent freeze-thaw cycles. Most species that can survive in this harsh climate are relics of when glaciers were more prevalent throughout North America.

“It’s a real island of what it might be like to live in a glaciated environment,” said Michael Remke, a forest health research associate with Mountain Studies Institute. “It more closely resembles the Arctic Circle.”

All of these factors cause vegetation to take a long time to grow, and an even longer time to recover if damaged. The most common figure thrown out for recovery time is about 100 years, Remke said.

“But it’s also reasonable to think it’s much longer,” he said. “We’re in a big drought right now ... and that might delay the possibility of recovery.”

Public land agencies say people unfamiliar with backcountry travel are disregarding rules, resulting in more damage to fragile landscapes. Ridgway photographer Tony Litschewski took this photo near Clear Lake outside Silverton.
Public land managers say when one person drives off-road, other people see the tracks and are more inclined to follow suit, resulting in an illegal route.

And damage to the alpine tundra can have real ramifications for mammals, too.

Remke said, for instance, rising impacts from all forms of recreation can decrease quality forage for the pika, a small mountain-dwelling mammal that gathers food all summer to stock up for the long winter.

“In areas of clearly high recreation use, we do see population declines,” he said.

A lack of presence

Violators tend to fall into two categories, Blackman said.

The first is people unaware of backcountry etiquette, and once educated, they typically follow the rules. But outreach can be limited, especially with increased crowds, and education may be ineffective for the second category of offenders.

“There’s a contingent of people content to violate the regulations,” Blackman said. “There’s no denying that ... and we have a limited force of workers that can be out there patrolling.”

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have just one law enforcement ranger each to cover a vast swath of the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. Both agencies lean on volunteers for educational efforts.

Conrad said his office has been especially short-staffed recently with just him and another deputy. The positions for two alpine rangers also fell through this year, further complicating matters, though he has brought on some part-time help.

“It’s still not enough presence in the backcountry,” he said.

New backcountry monitoring

Brant Porter, a spokesman for the BLM’s Gunnison office, said even if there were more law enforcement out, it would be difficult to cover such a large area, and at the same time, catch people in the act of driving off-road or dumping trash.

One new component of backcountry monitoring has been people with cellphones taking video and photos on their cellphones of suspected culprits and turning the information over to land management agencies.

Tony Litschewski, a photographer based in Ridgway, said he photographed quite a bit of damage during just one weekend by Clear Lake outside Silverton.

“It’s just absolutely exploded this year with the number of people out here,” Litschewski said. “It’s a small percentage that are violating the rules, but with this sheer number of people out here, a small percentage starts adding up.”

Blackman said the Forest Service reviews all photos of possible wrongdoing on public lands, but he cautioned people to be careful and not get into a dangerous situation while taking photographs. Self-policing among user groups, like OHV rider clubs, has also proved an effective method to encourage best practices.

Ridgway photographer Tony Litschewski said he documented an onslaught of damage to the alpine tundra around Clear Lake earlier this month outside Silverton.
Where do we go from here?

Soon, summer will turn to fall, and slowly, visitation will trail off. But Conrad said that will be the time Silverton needs to start asking hard questions about what kind of town it wants to be going forward.

Silverton in 2014 opened some streets in town to OHV use, and ever since, the town has become a magnet for off-highway riders, drawing sometimes sharp divisions in the town of about 600 residents.

Some see OHVs as an important part of the town’s tourist-dependent economy. Others view the user group as a noisy and destructive nuisance that compromises the character of the town. And there are those who fall somewhere in between.

Regardless of opinions, Conrad said the situation is untenable for his office, which deals constantly with OHV riders speeding, drunken driving, going onto off-limit roads and, in worst case scenarios, crashing and requiring rescue.

“I’m not for eliminating OHVs from the backcountry,” Conrad said. “But at what point is our quality of life no longer worth the finances? Where do we draw that line in the sand?”


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