North desert’s dusty future
The grayish-brown, dusty knobs, arroyos, humps, hummocks and hills of the desert north of Grand Junction at their best look like rumpled elephant skin left to dry unevenly under the western Colorado sun.
For many, that soil is uninspiring, a terra incognita, and best left that way.
To others, it’s an Adventureland that Walt Disney could never hope to duplicate.
To the Bureau of Land Management, the lumpy land poses a multiuse challenge.
And to at least one Grand Junction man, they represent an opportunity that’s been ignored too long.
The BLM is revamping its resource-management plan for more than 1 million acres encompassing all of Mesa and parts of surrounding counties. Part of that job, which is done every 20 years or so, is reconsidering how and where people are allowed to traverse that part of western Colorado.
And part of that territory is the hardscrabble land known by many as the desert north of Grand Junction. On the maps the BLM produced for the draft resource-management plan, it’s called Zone L, stretching roughly east from 21 Road along the Bookcliffs and north of the Grand Junction Regional Airport to just shy of 29 Road. It encompasses a total of 63 square miles, or more than 40,000 acres.
“This is one of those areas in which recreation has had the upper hand in what’s going on out there,” said Michelle Bailey, assistant field manager at the Grand Junction Field Office, 2815 H Road.
That’s not likely to change, but other voices are being heard as the office continues gathering public comment on the draft management plan, which it will continue to do through June 24.
The idea that the north desert needs much management at all strikes Steve Chapel, president of the Western Slope ATV Association, as incongruous.
“If there were ever a place suitable for a spaghetti network of roads, this would be it,” Chapel said of the north desert.
The U.S. Army surveyed the same knolls and canyons before the Civil War and reached a similar conclusion, Chapel said.
On Sept. 16, 1853, Capt. John W. Gunnison wrote of his visit to the Grand Valley for the Pacific Railroad Survey that he stayed a short distance above the Grand River and its confluence with the Uncompahgre River.
“The country is in all respects like that passed yesterday — cottonwood, willow and grass in the narrow bottom and near it, heavy sage,” Gunnison wrote, “but the great mass of the valley is nearly destitute of vegetation — light, clayey soil and arid to such an extent that it is disagreeable to ride over it, as it sends up clouds of dust at every step.”
The Grand Valley’s climate and topography might have changed little in the intervening century and a half, but, Bailey said, a great deal else has.
Now, there are residents who look to the north desert and see more than a barren waste, Bailey said.
Taming the desert
Birders, hikers, bikers, dog walkers and others frequent the same desert landscape, Bailey said. Some others treasure the way the desert looks and the land also sheds water from the Bookcliffs onto the Mancos shale and into the Colorado River, making increased salinity in the Colorado River a concern, as well.
“A lot of folks use it,” Bailey said of Zone L, “and they don’t want to see it trashed.”
So the idea that the BLM is offering in the management plan is one in which the north desert is tamed a bit — some say a lot. Ultimately, Bailey said, she hopes to see the north desert look like the Flat Top-Peach Valley OHV Management Area in and near the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
Peach Valley encompasses 9,700 acres and 75 miles of trails and has restrooms, a picnic area, campground and information kiosks.
“It’s a pretty cool place,” Bailey said. “That’s where we’re headed.”
At this point, the Grand Junction resource-management plan isn’t that specific. It is clear that the 11,400 acres that comprise the open area within Zone L, the north desert, is proposed to shrink. Most anything goes in an open area. Dirt-bikers, four-wheelers, dune buggies, ATVs and so on are free to bounce about the ‘dobes and climb the cliffs.
The preferred alternative offered by the bureau calls for a 4,900-acre open area along with 10 acres on Skinny Ridge. The “development” alternative calls for 9,700 acres, and the most restrictive of the alternatives would allow use, but only on designated routes.
Route designation is an issue across the million acres, but it’s particularly significant for the rest of Zone L, where the spaghetti-bowl analogy is most striking.
Maps of the trails and roads the north desert are so complex they can’t be depicted clearly within a manageable space in this newspaper. Maps may be downloaded from the Grand Junction field office website or viewed at libraries or the office itself.
Map and a ride
From the west end along 21 Road to the 29 Road alignment, myriad trails form a web that looks as though it was set down by an army of spiders.
As such, said Steve Martin of Motorcycle Accessories, 3080 Main St., Zone L might be a wonderland for residents familiar with its twists and turns, but it’s not the kind of tourism-attracting economic asset it might be.
The north desert needs about 10 usable trails that could be easily delineated on a map and properly promoted to visitors, Martin said.
That way, visitors could “get a map and go out for a nice, half-day ride,” or more, Martin said.
Motorized users, as the dirt-bikers, ATVers, Jeepers and so on are referred to, would do well to join forces and recommend trail routes through the north desert, Martin said.
The BLM, meanwhile, could take better advantage of one of the tools it has, which is the designation of some routes as “primitive,” meaning they won’t be maintained but also not closed, Martin said.
In the presence of well-maintained routes, users will gravitate to the maintained trails and leave the primitive ones alone, he said.
“If people aren’t using (a trail,) the desert will take it back,” he said.
Mountain bikers have worked with the bureau to build the North Fruita Desert into a renowned biking area that’s well appointed with a campground, restrooms and maintained trails.
Some erroneously attribute the condition of the north Fruita desert to BLM favoritism for mountain biking, Martin said.
“I see a lot of hard work” on the part of mountain bikers to develop the North Fruita Desert area, Martin said.
Zone L, the Grand Junction north desert, has similar potential for motorized users, Martin said.
“It is a huge resource for this whole area” that is “absolutely fantastic, and nobody promotes it,” Martin said.
The north desert already has an out-of-state following of dirt bikers, all-terrain vehicle riders, Jeepers and others who roll in as soon as the mud from winter’s snows turns back into dust.
Suspicious of BLM
Many of the people who buckle on protective gear and snap down visors on their helmets are from the Grand Valley, but “we typically have riders from several surrounding states at our events,” said John Potter of the Bookcliff Rattlers off-road motorcycle club.
Still, “there probably could be some things that could be done to promote” the area, Potter said.
Users aren’t necessarily opposed to closing north-desert routes “that don’t make sense,” Potter said. “We just can’t tell (on maps) which are which.”
There’s an element of suspicion, as well, said Jeff Bates of the Grand Mesa Jeep Club, who said he agrees with Martin about the need to bring some order to the north desert’s twists and turns.
“But right now, BLM is generally in take-away mode, not the giving mode,” Bates said.
Martin’s idea for a well-ordered and maintained set of loops in the area would be a great system, but, Bates said, “don’t hold your breath.”
Area L is “really overwhelming,” but the bureau is interested in working with users to identify the most valuable routes, Bailey said, urging users to employ global-positioning system coordinates to identify favorite routes, as well as to let the agency know of routes that have washed out or become impassable.
The bureau has a strong record of backing well-designed and supported attractions, Bailey said, pointing to the North Fruita Desert and Kokopelli Trail.
“We promote the heck out of those places,” Bailey said.
Much might be said for the Grand Junction north desert some day, but there’s still much to do, she said.
“I think it will be a work in progress,” Bailey said.
The BLM is accepting comments at http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/gjfo/rmp/rmp.html. Written comments also may be directed to the Grand Junction Field Office, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction 81501.