Vagneur: Don’t be hoodwinked by motorheads |

Vagneur: Don’t be hoodwinked by motorheads

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

In case you missed it, there was a meeting Wednesday night, hosted by the Pitkin County commissioners, seeking comments on the possibility of changing the way the county views unlicensed off-highway vehicle, or all-terrain vehicle travel on its roads. Currently, and according to state law, off-highway vehicle travel is prohibited from operating on county roads. This is being discussed because off-highway vehicle use on county roads, using them to get to the backcountry, is becoming a management issue.

Of course, by definition, once a motorized (or mechanical) vehicle enters the backcountry, it is no longer the backcountry, but rather just another area where motorized travel is allowed. Changing the rules is a very bad idea, as dictated by historical experience and a backyard debacle, discussed below.

I have spent the past 60 years or more traveling the mountains of the White River National Forest, at least 25 of them as a Forest Service volunteer. Much of that time has been spent in the area between Sloan’s Peak and Mount Yeckel, but I also have many years’ experience in the East and West Sopris Creek drainages, and naturally in the wilderness areas adjacent to much of the civilized land around here.

In the 1950s to ’60s, there were many Jeep trails throughout the region, going past old mining and logging cabins, many of them with the glass still intact, salt and pepper shakers standing in the sills. Many of the doors worked, some still had shutters. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Forest Service began decommissioning many of these roads because their original purposes no longer existed and the increased backcountry motorized vehicle traffic was beginning to scar the land. People began to think that anywhere was fair game to a Jeep (or anything with a motor) — roads weren’t necessary. Those old cabins mentioned above quickly succumbed to the ’60s and ’70s “cuteness” craze of old “barn wood” and the selfish impulse to “save” for posterity a few precious artifacts from the “deserted” mountains.

Thank God the Forest Service closed so many of those roads, or we would likely have very little peace left in the backcountry. But no sooner did quiet begin to return to the forests and wilds around Aspen and the valley, then the ugly head of the dirt bike made its presence known.

The Forest Service tried an experiment, around 1984, allowing dirt bikes in the Sloan’s Peak-Mount Yeckel area. Within a year, the Forest Service realized they had created an unwieldly disaster and closed the area to dirt bikes, but like Pandora’s Box, once opened, there was no stuffing the dirt bike’s rude loudness and voracious appetite for bandit trails back in the box. With a never-before-seen temerity, those dirt bikes ignored the illegality of their actions and continued to disrupt the tranquility of that area with impunity.

About 2012 or so, the Forest Service gave in to pressure from dirt-bike and motorized groups and once again has allowed motorized use of the trails in that area, under the rationalization that if such travel were legal, the Forest Service could monitor and control use. There is absolutely no control in that area. There are so many illegal trails up there today it would be difficult to count them all — trails cut illegally through the forest, trails someone thought might be fun, trails that go absolutely nowhere. It’s a travesty what has been allowed to happen up there.

Allow increased off-highway vehicle and ATV use on Pitkin County roads and this is what you will eventually get everywhere off-highway vehicles and other motorized vehicles are allowed to travel. Pitkin County will be tasked with management of off-highway vehicles use on county roads, something they have not done previously.

One of the oft-repeated comments heard from motorized users is that most people follow the rules — that only a small minority travel where they shouldn’t. Perhaps that’s true, but in the high-altitude tundra, an errant track across a grassy hillside or through an open park remains visible for the rest of the season. A month, or a week later, another motorized operator will see that track and say, “Why not? Somebody else has already been there.” The next thing you know, there is another well-traveled path through a non-motorized area looking like Highway 82, with most of the users saying, “Oh, yeah, that trail has been there for ages.” Reality gets lost in a hurry.

According to the Forest Service, only 2 percent of forest visitors are motorized, yet locally they are submitting about 80 percent of comments on the county website (below). We’re being steamrolled, folks.

If you value peace and quiet and wish to protect the backcountry, make your voice heard by going to and posting your comments. Vote for Scenario No.1, which is a “status quo” approach where all county roads would remain off limits to off-highway vehicles and ATVs according to state law. Deadline is Friday.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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