September 6, 2005
When John Narby throws on a chest protector, helmet and other gear, and heads into the woods on his dirt bike, he knows many environmentalists consider him “a guy in a Star Wars outfit tearing the s–t out of the trail.”But Narby contends that he and 99 percent of other motorcycle riders are environmentally responsible and just as entitled to use public lands as hikers, mountain bikers and anyone else.Narby, a resident of Missouri Heights, is part of a growing legion of off-highway-vehicle enthusiasts that is demanding more room to play in places like the White River National Forest. They are a powerful enough special interest group that they have placed the U.S. Forest Service in the difficult position of seeking balance between environmental protection and adequate access to public lands.The Forest Service has been working for three years on a “Travel Management Plan” for the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest, which stretches from south of Aspen to the Flat Tops, north of Glenwood Springs, and from Rifle to Summit County. A draft plan will be released next spring. The agency will review public comments about the draft, then issue a final plan.That plan will specify which of the 2,000 miles of forest roads and 1,900 miles of authorized trails will remain open and which will be closed. It will also look at the controversial topic of how to treat hundreds of miles of roads and trails that have been created by users over the years but were never officially recognized or maintained by the Forest Service.Some of the decisions are guaranteed to disappoint each of the user groups.Motorized users catch a breakDirt bikers, snowmobilers and other off-road-vehicle users caught a break in 2002 when a new overall management plan for the White River was released. Initially, the forest officials had emphasized protection of wildlife habitat and had contemplated corralling motorized users into relatively small sections of the backcountry.
But the agency changed direction, in part due to pressure from former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, and ultimately adopted a plan that strikes more of a balance between ecological management and increased recreation opportunities. The new plan pledges that more room for summertime motorized uses will be provided. The Travel Management Plan, a component of the overall document, will put that philosophy into place.Even so, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has identified “unmanaged recreation” by off-road vehicles as one of four major threats facing national forests. The agency is working on nationwide guidelines for off-road vehicle use.Forest Service data shows use of dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles has soared in the last 30 years. National registration of off-road vehicles skyrocketed from 5 million in 1972 to 36 million in 2000, according to the agency.In 2002, off-road vehicles accounted for 11 million of the 256.2 million visits to national forests.The use has been just as explosive in the White River National Forest, which hosts more recreational visitors than any forest in the country. That explosion in popularity is why dirt bikers need additional trails, preferably the narrow singletracks that climb and dip over hills, and twist and turn through forests, according to Narby.Restricting an increasing number of dirt bikers to the small amount of existing terrain where they are now allowed is an invitation for disaster, he said. It invites environmental degradation and encourages unauthorized use of other areas.About 163 miles of the 1,900 miles of trails (this does not include popular roads such as Express Creek, Smuggler Mountain and Richmond Ridge) in the White River are open to motorized recreation during summers.”If you only rode what they say is open you’d have little access,” Narby said. “Instead of closing land down they ought to be opening it up and managing it properly.”Environmentalists seek closuresWhile motorized users are pushing for greater access, the Forest Service is under pressure from local environmental groups for more closures. The Travel Management Plan should start with a clean slate, where each road and trail is assessed based on ecosystem needs, according to Richard Compton, who conducted a vast inventory of roads and trails for a coalition of environmental groups.
“None of us are arguing there should be no trails,” said Clare Bastable, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Mountain Club, a hiking and environmental group monitoring the travel management process. “We’re saying, ‘What can the forest handle and what’s appropriate?'”Sloan Shoemaker, director of Wilderness Workshop, one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s oldest environmental groups, said the White River National Forest shouldn’t be expected to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of motorized users on vehicles that can travel much greater distances, thanks to technological advances.A hiker may cover eight to 12 miles in a long day, Shoemaker noted, whereas a dirt biker might need 80 to 100 miles for a satisfying all-day outing.”The forest isn’t big enough to accommodate all of it,” he said of motorized uses.Nearly one-third of the 2.3 million acres in the White River is designated as wilderness, where motorized and mechanized users are banned and only hiking and backpacking are allowed. Some off-road advocates contend that environmentalists are greedy because they want to “close” even more of the forest.But Shoemaker said much of the remaining two-thirds has high ecological value, such as wildlife habitat, that would be damaged if it were opened to motorized users. Those lands still need protection – not only from motorized users but from mountain bikers and even hikers.Karin Teague, a Basalt resident and avid hiker, said there is “an unexamined assumption that hikers have no impact” on wildlife and sensitive flora. She said she would be willing to surrender some trails if it could be proved it benefited nature.”There are lesser concerns, then there are larger concerns,” she said.Compton said ecosystems need protection from excess recreation just like they need protection from excess logging, even though recreational uses seem more benign. “Most people recognize you need to limit the number of trees you chop down,” he said.’Death by a million cuts’The environmental groups oppose the creation of more trails and roads because of fragmentation. New routes across national forests and other public lands fragment wildlife habitat and leave smaller areas of undisturbed land.
The Forest Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife acknowledge that most animals avoid trails and, in some cases, won’t even cross them. The more trails in an area, the less wildlife there will be.”The more you chop it up, the less biologically rich it becomes,” Compton said. “It’s the death by a million cuts, essentially.”Shoemaker said the environmental coalition will press the Forest Service on two key points during writing of the Travel Management Plan.First, environmentalists want closure of all the roads and trails that were created by users without Forest Service permission. Dirt bikers and mountain bikers, in particular, have been known to follow cattle or game trails into the woods and gradually turn them into well-worn routes. The problem with many of those trails, environmentalists claim, is they might be more susceptible to erosion or cause more harm to habitat like elk-calving grounds because they weren’t planned prior to construction.An estimated 500 miles of unauthorized roads and an unknown number of unauthorized trails exist in the White River, according to the environmental coalition.In other cases, environmental groups will press for closure of trails, regardless of whether they were previously authorized or not, that are in areas they feel qualify for wilderness protection. For example, the coalition supports banning mountain bikes from the Braderich Creek Trail in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale because it is promoting that site for wilderness.Shoemaker acknowledged that won’t make the coalition popular with mountain bikers. “There are going to be hard choices here and there,” he said.A second major point the coalition will press is no net increase in miles of roads and trails. If trails are added to accommodate user groups like dirt bikers or mountain bikers, other routes must be taken away, Shoemaker said.He likened the national forest to a sandbox in a playground. The sandbox cannot expand, said Shoemaker, so the people playing in it “need to learn to get along.”While Narby and other forest users see a need for additional trails, Shoemaker insisted that nearly 4,000 miles of authorized roads and trails should be enough for everyone.
“We’re not talking about a forest that’s locked up and people are shut out,” he said.No popularity contestThe Travel Management Plan will definitely close some of those unauthorized routes – even if they are immensely popular with one group or another, said Wendy Haskins, a planner in the White River National Forest.”We will look at how does it fit with the network, how does it fit with an overall need,” Haskins said. “It’s not a voting process.”If trail use were a popularity contest, mountain bikers would have their way. Mountain bikes weren’t even mentioned in the last Travel Management Plan, which was crafted in 1985. The sport exploded in popularity soon after. Now mountain bikers are one of the largest user groups in the White River, but also one of the least politically organized.The environmentalists have their coalition and Narby keeps a network of dirt bikers aware of travel planning issues, but most mountain bikers have no idea that some of their most cherished trails could be closed.Bikers in Aspen created several bandit singletrack trails about a dozen years ago to complement the existing network of roads and trails in the Hunter Creek Valley and Four Corners area. Bikers say it’s an excellent network that provides some of the best riding in Colorado.But those are exactly the kinds of trails the Forest Service will examine with an eye toward potential closure. Glenn Horn, an avid Aspen cyclist, said unauthorized trails created by cyclists are some of the best in the upper valley. He questioned why the Forest Service would consider closing such trails when the agency has added so few itself since mountain biking boomed nearly 20 years ago.In the last big battle with bureaucrats, bikers lost. The Forest Service banned mountain bikes from wilderness areas in the mid-1980s after getting caught off-guard by the sport’s popularity. Although they weren’t motorized, mountain bikes were found incompatible with the solitude of wilderness and with hikers, backpackers and equestrians who roamed there.
The ‘us versus them’ problemHaskins said the White River’s Travel Management Plan is designed to ease conflicts between trail users as well as minimize the impact on the ecosystem. The White River is already experiencing conflicts between ATV riders and hunters in the Flat Tops area, she said. And in Summit County, which is closer to Denver and the Front Range, there are more forest users of all types and a proportionally larger number of conflicts.”I don’t know that it’s as extreme here as in other areas of the country, but it’s getting there,” said Haskins.The 2002 forest plan warned that hiking, mountain biking and four-wheeling were growing at such a rate that summertime conflicts seemed inevitable. “Some areas are already crowded, and they may reach capacity during the next 10 years,” the plan said.Teague said there are so many trails to hike that it is easy to avoid conflicts with off-road vehicles. On trails that are shared with mountain bikes, she said common sense helps avoid conflicts. She keeps an eye open for bikers and asks if they are riding with others when she encounters them.Horn also believes the potential for conflicts is overblown. Unlike many mountain bikers, he welcomes dirt bikers on the trails he travels. He said they keep the trail surfaces buffed and the deadfall cleared.Narby said he rarely encounters problems with mountain bikers, hikers or equestrians while he is on his dirt bike. He said he always makes sure he gets off the bike and removes his helmet when he meets someone on horseback, because he doesn’t want to spook the animal. Both Horn and Narby said common courtesy on the part of mountain bikers and motorcyclists prevents conflict. Narby doesn’t want ATVs widening his singletrack trails and he doesn’t particularly enjoy riding through horse droppings, but he figures there are enough roads and trails for all users to co-exist. Forest users just need to drop their biases and cooperate, he said.”I don’t think there’s a conflict of spirit. Everybody that’s fighting loves the woods,” said Narby.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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While most of the Travel Management Plan concentrates on summer, winter also presents issues.A group called Powder to the People is using the U.S. Forest Services travel planning process in the White River National Forest to try to ensure access to some of the best backcountry skiing in Aspen.Group founder Mike Sladdin claims Aspen Powder Tours has unfair, exclusive access to about 400 acres of public land on the back of Aspen Mountain. Powder hounds can use their snowmobiles on three county roads in the area, but the Forest Service prohibits them from traveling on mountainsides that provide access to the east side of Richmond Ridge. The county roads provide access to some of the slopes on the west side of the ridge.Its awesome skiing [on the west side], but its not quite as good as the other side, Sladdin said.The Forest Service contends that Aspen Powder Tours, which is affiliated with the Aspen Skiing Co., has a permit to use the public lands. Allowing skiers and riders into the same area would ruin the powder tour companys business, the agency maintains.Sladdin said hes just sticking up for the little guy in this case the scores of men and women who enjoy the unguided experience on the back of Aspen Mountain.Powder to the People were fighting for the public, he said. Im not just some fanatic out there. I want to save our public lands for the public.Powder to the People has about 25 dues-paying members and more than 100 supporters have signed a petition appealing to the Forest Service for access. Sladdin is negotiating with agency officials on a compromise for this winter. He will also check the draft Travel Management Plan and submit comments, if necessary, to try to preserve the 400 acres on the back of Aspen Mountain for backcountry skiers unaffiliated with Aspen Powder Tours.More details about the citizen groups efforts can be found at powdertothepeople.org. Scott Condon