Ghost Roads 

Forests battered by off-road vehicles as officers struggle to protect the land

click to enlarge BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott

Frank Landis steers his pale green U.S. Forest Service four-by-four past ghost road after ghost road.

The winding, dirt roads don't officially exist on maps of Pike National Forest. But they jut from official arteries, turnabouts and camp areas -- even from roads that technically do not exist.

"To me, it comes down to three words: lack of respect," said Landis, a forest manager, as he bounced behind the wheel of his truck in a recent tour along battered forest roads.

Here, some of the nation's 36 million off-road vehicles roar under the craggy mountain peaks that make up the breathtaking backdrop of Colorado Springs. Some of the drivers break the law by forging these illegal ghost roads, risking a range of punishments from a warning to a $50 fine to forfeiture of vehicles.

The number of Americans with SUVs, specialized motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles has risen sevenfold since 1972. Back then, there were just 5 million. Today, there are so many that Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth mentioned them -- singling out renegade riders -- in a speech during Earth Day celebrations in San Francisco last year.

"Even a tiny percentage of impact from all those millions of users is still a lot of impact," he told the crowd. "Each year, we get hundreds of miles of what we euphemistically refer to as 'unplanned roads and routes.'"

Scientists have joined Bosworth in sounding the alarm, armed with decades of studies that conclude off-road vehicles are environmentally harmful. ATVs, motorcycles and SUVs cause soil erosion, which leads to the death of the trees and plants that sustain forest animals. The soil flows into streams and rivers, killing aquatic life. Wildlife are losing track of prey and chances to mate amid the howl of off-road engines. And two-stroke engines burn a combination of gas and oil that emits health-harming pollutants into the water, soil and air.

In January, Bosworth assembled a team to craft new rules to address the environmental impacts of rising off-road use. Their first task was to end the confusing array of separate off-road policies that govern the nation's 155 forests and 21 grasslands by creating a single rule.

The rule was released July 7 for 60 days of public comment and will lead to a new off-road policy.

Bosworth's office announced the new rule will "enhance recreational opportunities for the public and better protect the environment by requiring units to establish a designated system of roads, trails and areas." The proposed rule calls on foresters to meet with off-road riders, conservationists, and state, local and tribal governments, among others, to finally map which roads are legal and which are not. Some ghost roads will probably become legal.

But the proposal has off-road groups fretting that environmentalists will use the process to lobby foresters to close some popular routes. Environmentalists and scientists are also frustrated. They say the proposal will do little to prevent further damage to the nation's forests.

Tearing up hillsides

The SUV to end all SUVs -- the $105,000 Hummer H1 -- blows through forests, jungles, snowy mountainsides and even outer space in advertisements.

It hurts Landis just to watch.

"They make you think you can roll off the lot and take them to the top of the mountain," he said. "It's like hunter safety -- you can't just go up and buy a gun and hunt safely."

click to enlarge Frank Landis, a manager for Pike National Forest. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Frank Landis, a manager for Pike National Forest.

Television commercials depicting off-road vehicles taking on all kinds of rugged terrain have contributed to a growing culture where, for some, anything seems to go, Landis said. A small fraction wear "Darth Vader" gear -- motorcycle helmets and shoulder pads -- and ilegally tear up hillsides, he said.

The commercials also indicate that the multimillion-dollar off-road industry is healthy, despite recent SUV sales declines in the face of rising gasoline prices. But long-term motorcycle and ATV sales have been robust, said Mike Mount, a spokesman with dual duties for the Motorcycle Industry Council and Specialty Vehicle Institute of America. Both groups are nonprofits in Irvine, Calif.

Between 1993 and 2003, annual sales of ATVs rose from 195,000 to 886,000. Riders hit thousands of miles of roads and trails the Forest Service has approved for off-roaders and year-by-year have created hundreds more miles of illegal roads. There are so many that the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., can't put a number to them, which is part of the reason why a rule has been proposed.

Colorado Springs resident Don Groccia, vice president of the southern district of the statewide Colorado Association of 4WD Clubs Inc., based in Wheat Ridge, sees increasing off-road use, along with self-styled upgrades, as the coming of age of an all-American sport.

"The average Joe can build something and test it," he said. "That's part of the appeal."

They come -- some with tank treads -- from along the Front Range: Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and the surrounding suburbs.

"It's the adrenaline rush," Groccia said. "It's the feeling of going up against something that brings so many people to our sport."

Some enjoy the extreme challenges, and post their conquests on the Internet at sites like www.TrailDamage.com, which is loaded with riders' photos, digital movies and stories. The Web site gives awards for the most-damaged vehicles. "He got his front wheels lodged under the lip of a rock and when he tried to pop over it, his back wheels kept going while his front wheels stayed put. The result was a busted axle, but Adam put it back together enough to get back to town, one read"

They go to far-off places called Heart-Attack Hill, Slaughterhouse Gulch, Holy Cross and Yankee Hill and name their groups the Rock Hoppers, Hillbillies, Jeep Junkies and Happy Bottoms. There's even a four-wheel association in Colorado Springs for Christians with a Web site loosely quoting the book of Micah in the Old Testament: "Come, let us go up to the mountains."

For Ron Walsh, a retired ironworker who lives near Cañon City just outside national forest land, the situation is less than divine.

"This is where they come," he said.

During the last 15 years, the growls of bears and snarls of mountain lions have been lost to wailing engines that run nearly year-round -- from spring thaw to winter hunting season, he said.

"There should be a place where two-legged and four-legged animals should be able to go without machines being there," he said. "There should be places to commune with nature. That's all."

The riders on those trails are becoming more diverse. Once considered a sport for athletic risk-takers, off-road riding is today a family activity, with many new riders being children or the elderly, Mount said.

"It's about doing things together as a family," he said. "You can get teenage kids to go motorcycle riding for the weekend. It's lots of fun."

In the last decade, off-road motorcycle sales climbed from 76,000 annually to 317,000.

click to enlarge The Forest Service places signs to direct people to legal - roads - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The Forest Service places signs to direct people to legal roads

Muddy black water

Amid the lodgepole pine trees and hanging rock formations of Limbaugh Canyon, a few miles northeast of Woodland Park on bumpy Forest Road 322A in the Pike National Forest, the damage caused by off-road vehicles is so extensive the Forest Service this week closed the area. During a recent tour, Landis points out illegal ghost roads that veer off 322A, which is made up of the same sensitive soil that eroded and caused floods after the Hayman Fire in 2002.

Several illegal routes slice up tree-lined hillsides to areas that Landis describes as pristine and deserving protection. Fresh tire tracks rip across a bog and a brook.

It wasn't this bad when Ken Archuleta, a forest law enforcement officer, began working with the Forest Service a little more than a decade ago.

"It was a nice brook through meadows," he said. "Now it's muddy black water, and the land is destroyed."

Designated roads and trails are marked with brown signs and arrows. And fresh tire tracks zip right past white "Popsicle" signs and yellow cast-iron warnings pocked with bullet holes that tell riders not to venture further. Outside Limbaugh Canyon, foresters have felled trees to block illegal routes or have put up elaborate fencing. There are dozens of examples throughout the forest where riders have simply created new, illegal roads around the fences.

"It's just a whole illegal network of routes out there that we can't manage," he said.

At a nearly barren hill, save for a few lonely trees and some brush, foresters have dug a deep trench to prevent riders from accelerating to its once-bald top. This is one of the few success stories, Landis said, pointing out hopeful areas where plant life is returning only after being safeguarded for more than a year.

There are other areas like this where foresters have tried similar tactics. But they can be expensive and time-consuming, Landis said.

Spike in violations

While the Forest Service tries to keep up with the estimated 1.8 million off-road users that visit areas in the 191 million acres of national forest and grasslands, the number of officers has declined by 37 percent in the past decade.

Along with contending with off-road miscreants, officers are responsible for busting drug dealers, preventing fires, guarding against eco-terrorism and protecting archaeological resources, all while handling nuisances such as drunkenness and litter.

Violations involving off-road vehicles increased markedly across the nation in the last three years. In 2001, the Forest Service issued 2,090 tickets to off-road users. Last year that number jumped to 8,098 -- representing 18 percent of all violations in national forests.

Pike National Forest has witnessed a similar rise in the same period -- violations were up from 174 in 2001 to 393 in 2003 -- compared to 113 tickets in 1993.

Terry McCann, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said it is unclear why violations have risen so significantly in recent years. But he speculated that better technology allows riders to access harsher terrain and the activity has simply become more popular.

While Groccia recognizes the problem of renegades, he contends it is limited to a "few bad apples." Most clubs in Colorado practice a philosophy to "Tread Lightly," he said. The slogan encourages riders to minimize impacts to the environment and to preserve the land for future generations of off-road riders. Above all, it is important to lead by example, he said.

click to enlarge This erosion was caused by off-road vehicles. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • This erosion was caused by off-road vehicles.

"We can only police ourselves," Groccia said. "If you see somebody doing something wrong, call them on it. Say something about it. You can make them feel bad and maybe it won't happen again. A handful of people cause problems, but it can make the entire sport look bad."

Jean Smith, a Florissant resident who hikes in Pike, agrees that only a handful is to blame. But she hesitates to approach off-road users who disregard rules. Some drink, some tote guns, she noted.

"The Forest Service has to do something to protect the land," she said.

But she knows officers are stretched. She's rarely seen them.

With 1.2 million acres of forest to watch and just three full-time law enforcement officers, one seasonal officer and one part-time officer assigned to Pike National Forest, Archuleta openly acknowledges the problem.

"We tend to be reactive," Archuleta said. "Seldom are we Johnny on the spot. We do a lot of piecing together after the fact."

Law enforcement officers wrote more incident reports documenting off-road damage than tickets in 2003. The reports are filed when an officer, usually acting on a complaint, can't locate a culprit after an alleged violation. Officers filed 10,455 incident reports in 2003 -- compared to 7,392 the year before and 4,351 in 2001.

Meanwhile, the number of officers across the nation has dropped significantly. In 1993, there were roughly 984 officers nationwide. By 1995, due to a budget reorganization that led many officers to give up law enforcement credentials in favor of other duties, that number had dropped to 642. Today, 622 officers guard a forest system that has grown by 1 million acres in the last 10 years.

On average, each officer is responsible for enforcing laws on 300,000 acres -- an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

Law enforcement officers must, Archuleta said, rely on the help of workers like Landis, who is also burdened with desk responsibilities in Colorado Springs. Landis said he patrols mostly main roads when he has time -- usually on weekends -- and that his presence helps maintain order.

Landis writes tickets and issues warnings, but he's not allowed to pursue renegades or detain them. Some seem to know it, he said.

"I'm convinced there's a percentage of people -- particularly motorcycle riders -- that make an objective of eluding us," he said.

And only officers like Archuleta are allowed to carry guns in a forest system that lets the public, including off-road riders, bear firearms.

What's left

The Forest Service's proposed off-road vehicle rule would end unrestricted cross-country riding, which is allowed in some forests and not in others. Pike National Forest banned it more than a decade ago.

However, that ban is clearly moot in many places, given all the ghost roads that have already been established, Landis said.

click to enlarge Ken Archuleta is among 622 U.S. Forest Service law - enforcement officers who are charged with protecting - huge swaths of land  an average of 300,000 acres - each. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Ken Archuleta is among 622 U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers who are charged with protecting huge swaths of land an average of 300,000 acres each.

That's why environmentalists, who applaud the imminent end of cross-county use, remain critical of the Forest Service's proposed new off-road rule, despite its good intentions.

For one, there's nothing about hiring more law enforcement officers, said Adriana Raudzens, assistant field representative for the Sierra Club in Colorado.

Enforcement, she said, is essential to addressing renegade trails like those in Pike and to preserving the environment. Environmentalists have been critical of recent actions by the Bush administration, including a proposal to allow governors the power to decide state by state whether roads should be built on 58.5 million acres that were designated as "roadless" just before President Clinton left office. Raudzens said that is why the proposal to address off-road vehicles is so important.

"It's really imperative that we use what we might have left responsibly," she said. "If you don't put your money where your mouth is, you have nothing."

Sharon Metzler, the Forest Service's lead off-road rule administrator in Washington, D.C., is well aware that environmentalists and some residents in and near forests want more enforcement, but was unable to define how or if the Forest Service would address the concern in its proposed rule.

"I don't honestly know what we'll see," Metzler said.

Part of what the Forest Service will do depends on public comments received by Sept. 13, she added. But about a month into the process, there were only a handful of comments -- about 50 -- when 60,000 to 80,000 were anticipated, she said.

Damaging to every facet

Forest Chief Bosworth has spoken out strongly about four major threats to forests: fire, invasive species, loss of open space and "unmanaged outdoor recreation."

The fourth category includes off-road use, which Bosworth says has always been destined for management, just like mushroom picking or horseback riding in some areas.

"We're seeing more and more erosion, water degradation and habitat destruction," he told members of the conservation-minded Izaak Walton League in Pierre, S.D., last summer. "We're seeing more and more conflicts between users. We're seeing more damage to cultural sites and more violation of sites sacred to American Indians. And those are just some of the impacts. We've got to get a handle on that."

About two dozen prominent scientists and their supporters agree.

They added their signatures to a letter to Bosworth in March pointing out that not only do off-road riders damage land, but they also contribute to at least two other categories of concern outlined by the chief: fragmentation of wildlife and the spread invasive weeds. Both result when tires rip across illegal areas, according to scientists.

The group called on Bosworth to find ways to limit the use of off-road vehicles for the sake of the environment.

"What I appreciated about the letter was that it wasn't radical," said Lang Farmer, a University of Colorado geologist who signed on. "Instead, it was a reasoned appeal to encourage the chief of the Forest Service to address these issues."

Letter signatory Howard Wilshire, a Sebastopol, Calif., geologist, helped edit a groundbreaking book in 1983 on off-road vehicles: Environmental Effects of Off-Road Vehicles. Many scientists still cite the book, which took a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary look at the issue.

click to enlarge Illegal tracks rise up a hillside in Pike National Forests - Limbaugh Canyon, which was closed recently because - damage was so extensive. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Illegal tracks rise up a hillside in Pike National Forests Limbaugh Canyon, which was closed recently because damage was so extensive.

"Off-road vehicles are extremely damaging to every facet of the environment," Wilshire said.

For 36 years he was employed by the U.S. Geological Survey and recently retired as a senior scientist. He also is the chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group of land managers throughout the nation concerned about environmental degradation and the role of forest policies.

In studies of the Desert Southwest, Wilshire has concluded that deterioration caused by off-road use can be long lasting and, in places, could take hundreds of years to heal.

"It's called dirt, but it shouldn't be -- it's something very precious," he said. "Soil is a living organism. There are animals and micro-plants that live in the soil."

Scientists anticipate sending a second letter to comment on the specifics of the Forest Service's proposed off-road rule before the Sept. 13 deadline. One aspect already receiving criticism from Wilshire, Farmer and other scientists is that there's nothing to increase enforcement.

Mapping ghosts

With so many ghost roads running through the nation's forests, some of the routes considered illegal could ultimately be added to maps and become legal.

The process holds potential for showdowns between environmentalists and off-road groups who will be at regional and local public meetings established by foresters charged with choosing roads. Foresters will take into account the popularity of routes and the environmental impacts of continued, even expanded, use.

But, as proposed, the rule sets no time limit to complete maps. That has drawn criticism from the nonprofit Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, which represents more than two dozen environmentally minded groups in Colorado, including The Wilderness Society, Environment Colorado and Backcountry Snowsports Alliance.

The Conservation Alliance wants roads to be mapped in two years.

"Although there have been some good starts, we believe, as it is, the proposed rule is largely going to be ineffective," said Aaron Clark, a campaign director for the Alliance. "The chief has made statements that if we wait a day, a week, a month, a year, that's too long. Put a timeline in writing in the rule so that the public can see -- be accountable."

But the BlueRibbon Coalition, a Pocatello, Idaho-based national nonprofit that works closely with the Forest Service to prevent trails from being closed, said calls for a timeline reveal a hidden agenda by environmentalists. Foresters would probably fail to inventory all the roads within two years and be forced instead to close them, reducing recreation for off-roaders, said Brian Hawthorne, BlueRibbon's public lands director.

Metzler acknowledges the concern.

"We chose not to put a timeline in the rule itself because if we were not able to meet that two-year timeline, we were open to potential lawsuits," Metzler said.

That's because if a timeline is specified in the rule it becomes law and can be challenged in courts if foresters are too slow in mapping roads. Lawsuits have the potential to close hundreds of roads, Hawthorne said.

Yet the Forest Service is also wary of forging ahead without a time frame. Bosworth, Metzler said, would likely meet with regional forest managers after the rule is finalized and set local deadlines.

click to enlarge Off-road riders zoom down a U.S. Forest road on an all- - terrain vehicle. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Off-road riders zoom down a U.S. Forest road on an all- terrain vehicle.

"I would expect that he would set a time frame of two to four years," Metzler said.

If that happens, Clark worries it will splinter the deadlines across hundreds of ranger districts, creating a confusing process where adjacent forests will have different rules for several years despite the Forest Service's attempt to create a single national policy. He hopes the Forest Service will instead study the public comments that environmentalists and scientists have sent as a chance to prevent off-road damage for years to come -- long after the process of establishing a rule has ended.

The issue shouldn't be viewed as one of competing interests between off-road and environmental groups, he added. Instead, he said the Forest Service must craft a policy that puts the land first.

Meanwhile Landis is wary of forests' rising traffic and is grappling with some of the byproducts. In a grassy area inside Pike National Forest, forest managers have created a small junkyard that includes several rusting, smashed cars, a trashed pink-and-blue trailer, road signs shredded by bullet holes and even a kitchen sink.

"People don't want to pay landfill costs," he said. "They just run up the road in the forests and dump this stuff."

-- deyoanna@csindy.com


Proposed U.S. Forest Service off-road vehicle rule

Public comment period ends Sept. 13. Comments will be taken into account for final draft.

For information or to view the proposed rule, go to www.fs.fed.us/recreation and click on "National OHV Policy."

Send comments to:

Proposed Rule for Designated Routes and Areas for Motor Vehicle Use

C/O Content Analysis Team

P.O. Box 221150

Salt Lake City, Utah 84122-1150

E-mail: trvman@fs.fed.us

Fax: 801/517-1014


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