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At feds' behest, locals move toward more order in Pike National Forest

Todd Childers arrived early for an open house sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service last week in Woodland Park. Childers is a newcomer to the area, and when he isn't building a new house for his family, he heads into the forest on his ATV.

So when he saw a Forest Service announcement seeking comments on a plan for part of Pike National Forest, his new playground, he made time to attend.

"We moved here from Arizona, and when we lived there, we saw a lot of areas being closed to motorized vehicles," Childers says. "I've learned ATV riders need to be heard if they want their trails to stay open."

Open or closed — that's the question behind the South Rampart Travel Management Plan, the Pikes Peak Ranger District's response to a 2005 Forest Service OHV (off-highway vehicle) rule allowing motor-vehicle access to national forests and grasslands. The rule, which the Forest Service says reflects more than 81,000 comments nationwide, requires forests and grasslands to designate and map roads, trails and other areas open to motor-vehicle use.

In February, the Pikes Peak district published the first draft of its South Rampart area map, covering more than 121,000 acres in El Paso, Teller and Douglas counties. Access points are Rampart Range Road, Colorado Highway 67 and Forest Road 350 north of Woodland Park, and Mount Herman Road 320 west of Monument.

Even after the Forest Service makes the new trails and map official, probably in late 2010, you shouldn't expect on-ramps or passing lanes. You might even find that the total number of system trails is reduced. But Frank Landis, Pikes Peak district recreation planner, says some social trails might be used as logical links to existing trails, satisfying both those who use them and those with environmental concerns.

Diverse interests

People have taken off-road vehicles across Pike and other national forests for decades, but the first Pike motorized trail map was published in the 1980s, showing routes open to motorized users designated by white metal markers. Since then, motorized use has grown exponentially, Landis says, noting that "people began to make new routes, go further back off the main roads, look for better camping spots."

The forest became braided with user-created, single- and double-track routes. Signs were damaged or destroyed. Designated trails grew fingers as drivers veered off to play on steep hills or in muddy wetlands.

Landis says the recent round of planning has attracted user groups as diverse as the Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders Association (CMTRA), wildland conservation group Wild Connections, and mountain-bike advocacy group Medicine Wheel.

"This is the first plan in Colorado under the 2005 ruling," Landis says. "We have met with numerous stakeholders and already captured a lot of routes and talked about how they should be used. This isn't just about closing existing routes."

That's good news to Frank Lilawsa of Woodland Park, a CMTRA past president. With more than 100 members, the group is active in motorized trail-riding education, public-lands advocacy and trail maintenance.

"I think the best-case scenario of this plan is that we add new trails and don't lose existing ones," Lilawsa says, as he studies a Rampart map carefully to check for his favorite spots.

Lilawsa says he and his wife are typical: "We love the outdoors. We like to hike, too. We can just get further out on our bikes, and can get to places we just can't get to anymore on foot."

Their situation is more common than you might think: Among the 130,000 vehicle owners who registered with the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Program from April 2007 through March 2008, many are aging hikers and mountain bikers.

Watchful eyes

That's a lot of tires on the trails, and that's what Jean Smith of Florissant is watching.

"Motorized use tends to have bad consequences for habitat and wildlife," says Smith, founder of Wild Connections. But she says her group isn't opposed to ATVs and motorcycles on the trails.

Jim Lockhart of Colorado Springs serves on Wild Connections' board, is conservation chair for the Pikes Peak Sierra Club and is involved with the Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition. He's been attending meetings on the Rampart plan from the beginning.

"I believe the plan is a good first step," Lockhart says. "It's a way of managing the Pikes Peak district in a way that can accommodate these different uses. ... Many of those trails were originally meant for foot or animal traffic. They just weren't built for motorized vehicles."

He compares the renovation of Rampart Range trail systems to the Colorado highway network.

"When you look at our public roads, the number of roads hasn't increased much in the last 40 years," Lockhart says. "But roads have been improved and congestion has been addressed."

newsroom@csindy.com

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