If a dirt biker cheats does anybody see it?
October 12, 2005
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that looks at the challenges the U.S. Forest Service faces managing the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest.The U.S. Forest Service is supposed to complete a plan next year that determines where dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, Jeeps and even mountain bikes can roam in the sprawling White River National Forest.The agency has sunk countless hours into collecting public comments and analyzing different strategies. Off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists are gnawing their fingernails and consulting their attorneys over the plan because it will dictate management for at least the next 10 years.But the whole process might not make a lick of difference. The Forest Service appears hard-pressed to make new rules stick.Staffing and funding challenges raise doubts whether the agency can actually keep dirt bikers or mountain bikers off trails that are suddenly closed.The primary responsibility to enforce closures is on the shoulders of the law enforcement officers, or LEOs, in Forest Service jargon. They are the Forest Service’s version of city cops and county sheriff’s deputies out on patrol.There are four law enforcement officers to patrol the entire 2.3 million acres of the White River National Forest. That’s four officers to patrol an area stretching from Rifle to Summit County and from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs.In the best of times, that equates to one officer to patrol 575,000 acres.Positions unstaffedThese aren’t the best of times. Funds are tight. The law enforcement branch is funded separately from the regular Forest Service, but the results are the same – too few dollars for a big job.One LEO position in the White River National Forest has remained unfilled because of lack of funds, according to Rich Doak, who helps handle budget issues with the forest supervisor’s office. Another law enforcement officer has been on medical leave. That leaves two LEOs for the entire forest.”There are so few of them that it’s difficult,” said Doak, a former law enforcement officer himself.In theory, the typical friendly roving forest ranger can write tickets. And they do, for things like camping too close to a lake, lighting a fire in a prohibited area or riding a mountain bike on the Government Trail between Snowmass and Buttermilk when it is closed for elk calving season.But most rangers in the cash-strapped agency are assigned specific duties. Writing tickets takes time – and dollars out of their budgets.”Law enforcement as a general rule is a very difficult thing to do,” Doak said. “That’s not what most people get into the Forest Service to do.”A career writing dog ticketsLaw enforcement issues could consume the time of the staff at the Aspen Ranger District. Mountain bikers riding bandit trails in the Hunter Creek Valley, for example, or letting dogs off leash are two infractions many forest users commit without a second thought. It’s like speeding.”We talk about the dog issue ad nauseum,” Doak said. “A wilderness ranger could spend his entire career on that.”Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson and her staff made changes late this summer to get rangers into the forest more often and out of offices. But because Congress funds the law enforcement officers separately, there’s only so much the White River staff can do in that area.Both Gustafson and Doak remained optimistic that the travel management plan can be implemented – with closures – without radically beefing up enforcement.Gustafson said in an interview this summer the Forest Service needs to make the rules on trails and roads easier to understand. She maintained that if closures were clearly marked, most people would comply.There are 2,000 miles of roads and 1,900 miles of authorized trails in the White River. There are also several hundred miles of unauthorized or “bandit” trails.When a management plan was released in June 2002, the Forest Service declared that any trail that wasn’t specifically marked as open was closed. Travelers were supposed to comply voluntarily, but it’s debatable whether they even knew about the rule. For example, mountain bikers created several bandit trails in the Four Corners and Van Horn Park area. Most bikers assume that those trails are just part of the awesome network the Forest Service provides. Few realize the Forest Service doesn’t want them to ride bandit trails.Like Gustafson, Doak said experience shows that most people will comply with closures if they are properly educated and trails are adequately signed. “There will always be people out there that choose not to comply,” he conceded.And some offenders will be caught, despite the tough job facing the Forest Service on enforcement.”It will be the same people who we have now [for enforcement],” Doak said. “There is no magic bullet out there.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org