Battle lines form over travel plan for forest
Proposed cut in use of ATVs stirs debate
Bob Elderkin is getting older, and his bad hip, back and knees remind him of it every time he goes hunting.
For that reason, you might expect the Silt-area resident to be upset about a proposal to reduce all-terrain-vehicle use in the White River National Forest.
Instead, Elderkin bristles over all the ATVs he sees during hunting season.
“I think the American is getting so damned soft anymore, if he can’t drive himself and then shoot it, he really doesn’t want it. And that’s not what hunting is all about,” Elderkin said.
But Elderkin said he realizes he’s among a minority who think today’s hunters spend too much time driving and not enough on foot.
If Elderkin is in the minority of hunters, then the Colorado Division of Wildlife is speaking out on behalf of the majority and as a critic of a travel management plan proposed by White River National Forest. The plan would cut miles available for ATV travel by 46 percent, which the DOW considers overly restrictive.
The DOW bases its argument on the reality of many hunters’ preference to use vehicles to get closer to game, a reflection of the increasing average age of hunters.
Game management wrinkle comes into play
In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service earlier this year, DOW Director Thomas Remington said the average age of hunters is 56 and that the average has been increasing by a year every year.
Remington wrote that a balance needs to be reached where hunters can reasonably get within a short walking distance of a hunting area, and particularly downed game. He also said the philosophy of moving hunters away from ATVs and toward hiking and using horses is admirable but unrealistic, given hunting demographics and game-management goals.
He acknowledged the issue puts the DOW in a difficult position.
“The CDOW faces a quandary in that the reduction of motorized routes and routes in general helps wildlife and improves wildlife habitat, but in order to meet harvest objectives, the CDOW needs to be able to disperse this aging user group to the animals. ATVs seem to be the travel method of choice by a large portion of this group. ATVs, whether we like them as a travel method or not, are here to stay,” Remington wrote.
For the Forest Service, with its multiple-use mandate, the balancing act requires considering the desires of hunters who want a nonmotorized experience. In addition, it must take into account other impacts of motorized travel, such as noxious weed invasion, and erosion that can harm watersheds.
A chief factor the Forest Service has to bear in mind is safety, based on one requirement of a 2005 travel management rule the agency enacted to try to better get a handle on increasing motorized use nationwide. On the White River National Forest, the Forest Service decided that some roads open to passenger cars were unsafe for unlicensed vehicles such as ATVs, due to considerations such as driving speeds, traffic levels and blind curves.
In good measure because of that safety factor, the agency’s preferred draft plan for the White River National Forest would result in 993 miles of travel routes being available to ATVs, versus 1,833 now.
The Forest Service is considering comments from the DOW and others as it prepares a final travel management plan, which may be released later this year.
White River National Forest planner Wendy Haskins said the Forest Service considers the
DOW to be a partner agency.
“We try to help them as much as we can but have our own mission,” she said. “We take their comments very seriously, and we look to do what we can to help.”
Haskins said there may be places where the Forest Service can put up signs and narrow roads to reduce speeds and make them safe for ATVs as well as passenger cars.
But the Forest Service must try to address the desires of other forest users as well.
“There are just all kinds of customers out there and limited amount of land and opportunities.
We’re just trying to do what we can,” Haskins said.
The White River National Forest runs roughly from Parachute to Dillon and includes more than 2 million acres. The DOW worries that further travel restrictions will make it harder to manage game populations that already are above management objectives across the forest. That can lead to resource damage, such as overgrazing of vegetation.
“You get the kind of situation where you get a Rocky Mountain National Park, where you’ve got too many animals,” DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said.
The DOW recognizes the value in closing off certain areas to motorized use, he said, but it worries about restricting ATV access to large swaths of hunting territory.
Remington wrote that almost half of the White River National Forest already is off-limits to ATV use because it is designated wilderness.
The agency also thinks the Forest Service needs to consider the economic consequences that access restrictions could have for communities that benefit from hunting.
As for the suggestion that reduced ATV use would improve hunter satisfaction, Remington wrote, “Use of ATVs is always an issue, but generally when ATVs are being used illegally and not while on designated roads.”
In that regard, Hampton said the DOW was concerned enough about off-highway-vehicle and ATV misuse that the Colorado Legislature passed a law last year letting it enforce federal travel rules.
Dennis Davis, owner of ATV dealer Mountain Powersports near Glenwood Springs, said using the vehicles responsibly is key.
“We’re very adamant about staying on trails, not driving up to the game,” he said. “I believe as long as they’re used responsibly and as long as the hunters follow the regulations as they’re set out there, they should not be further restricted.”
He said he has watched the base age of his hunting customers and shares the DOW’s concern about what access restrictions could mean for hunting and game management.
“When you’re 65 years and you shoot a thousand-pound elk, you’re not going to be able to carry it for 10 miles,” he said.
Elderkin is a board member of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, which he said hasn’t taken a position on the ATV issue. He said the DOW is probably right about how ATV restrictions could contribute to game overpopulation.
“But that still doesn’t change anything,” he said. “The whole world’s just getting to where (people) won’t want to work at anything anymore.”
He said ATV users can harm hunting efforts by driving game into more remote areas.
“They turn them on in the morning, and they don’t turn them off until they get back to camp that night,” Elderkin said.