Inundated with by go-anywhere motorized vehicles, local governments are struggling to find a balance between welcoming the spending by “motorheads” and keeping their towns from resembling sets for a Mad Max movie.
Jun 17, 2021
When Teri Havens bought two acres tucked in a thick stand of aspen on a hill south of Marble in 1995, it was her bit of backcountry nirvana.
Yes, it sat along a popular jeeping trail ̶ a county road leading to the historic Lead King Loop. But she could live with four-wheel-drive vehicles jouncing past her place on their way into the White River National Forest; the drivers shared her appreciation for the beauty up the trail at the fringe of a wilderness area.
Eight years ago, that began to change.
Havens’ backcountry home slipped from tranquil into periodically hellish when a new breed of off-highway vehicles began blasting by in buzzing, whining, roaring caravans.
The vehicles kick dust hundreds of feet into the air. At times, they blare music and flash colored, blinking lights from antenna-like wands and high-intensity bars. Political statement flags flap from roll bars. Havens can’t recognize the drivers who are hidden behind goggles, helmets and ear protectors.
Havens and her neighbors now find human waste and toilet paper littering the edges of their property. There have been times when they have been trapped in their driveways by backcountry vehicles gridlocking the narrow road as far as they can see. In the scattering of buildings that make up Marble, they have to contend with a parking lot filled with big exhaust-belching trucks hauling trailers loaded with the newfangled vehicles.
“They are more numerous. They are more aggressive,” Havens said. “I feel like we are on the verge of a crisis. I hate to be all doomsday about it, but it really feels that way.”
A web of laws and regulations
Marble, a historic mining town of 140 residents in the upper Crystal River Valley near Carbondale, is by no means alone in grappling with an unprecedented, pandemic-boosted surge in off-highway vehicle use.
In 2015, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division that oversees OHV use counted 170,000 of the vehicles registered in the state. Last year, there were 203,873. Around 46,000 of those came from out of state.
Many rural, and often remote, Colorado towns inundated with the go-anywhere motorized vehicles are struggling to find a balance between welcoming the spending by “motorheads” and keeping their towns from resembling sets for a Mad Max movie.
About 99 percent of all OHV trails in Colorado are on public lands, but municipalities and counties have become staging areas or pass through for trail-bound OHVs. These local governments have the often-contentious choice to put out the welcome mat or the “Closed” sign for these vehicles because Colorado is among states where off-highway vehicles are banned on public roads, streets and highways ̶ unless the local entities opt to allow them.
Putting the onus on communities has led to a mishmash of regulations that can be trickier for motorized users to navigate than the diciest backcountry trail. Towns including Craig, Meeker, Westcliffe, Silvercliff, Leadville and Parachute welcome OHVs on all streets without restrictions. Some counties, including Custer and Delta, have opened all county roads to OHVs.
Aspen and Pitkin County have nixed them on their roads. The small Western Slope farming town of Dolores has too, following charged debate that ended with 60% of residents voting no to OHVs’ noise and dust.
Other counties and towns have instituted age, speed, gear and hour restrictions. They have OK’d OHV use on some streets, but not others. They have a variety of penalties for violations.
To snarl the regulations even further, the state, municipalities, counties and public land management agencies have cobbled together a patchwork of agreements on certain trails and access roads linked to trails in some popular OHV areas, including Marble.
Marble sits along the Lead King Loop, a 13-mile rugged road that cuts through the White River National Forest and winds along the edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Access to the Lead King Loop Road ran into problems because of an oversight. For the past six years, Gunnison County had an exemption that allowed OHVs on the county-owned section of road between the town limits and a hill leading to the beginning of the U.S. Forest Service loop road.
But the county inadvertently left a gap in that exemption. It OK’d OHV travel on 0.7 miles of road, but left out another 0.8 miles needed to connect Marble town roads to the Forest Service loop road. Legally, OHV drivers had to stop short of accessing the loop.
In May, the Gunnison County Commission proposed a resolution to close the gap. That set off fireworks. Concerned citizens wanted to keep that no-OHV gap in place to limit the disruptive traffic.
The commissioners ended up allowing OHVs to use the county road until the end of the year, when the issue can be revisited.
During that time, Marble and the county agreed to foot part of the bill for a Forest Service ranger to keep an eye on the Lead King Loop. The county also assigned two deputies to patrol that remote end of the county.
In the meantime, another dispute over a Marble town parking lot has turned into one more skirmish point in the OHV battle. The town had designated the Marble Mill Site Park parking lot for OHV-hauling trucks and trailers. But that turned out to not be allowed under the park’s designation as a national historic site that milled local marble for the Lincoln Memorial.
Anti-OHVers, who viewed the parking lot use as a noisy, air polluting blemish in the heart of their town and a slap in the face of history, chalked up a win.
The U.S. Forest Service is working on new management plans that may eventually bring other relief. Marble residents say there is some hope the agency may come up with a permitting system or establish alternating days for different users to relieve some of the pressure and conflict.
Marble residents say they don’t expect that to happen quickly because the agency is using the same land management tools put in place back when dirt bikes and electric bicycles were the problem ̶ not lightning-fast vehicles that can make their way over any terrain and bank turns that widen trails into deep-dish roads.
“A need to make some changes”
The San Juan Mountain town of Silverton is in the running with Marble for the touchiest OHV controversy.
After seven years of all-terrain-vehicle headaches that came with allowing the vehicles on select town streets, the Silverton Board of Trustees in May adopted an ordinance that prohibits OHVs on streets, alleyways and rights-of-way within town limits “in the best interests, welfare and safety of the residents.”
The ban was to take effect on June 19, but a citizens’ group that included many business owners, torpedoed that with a referendum that has forced a citizen vote this fall. In the meantime, OHVs can continue to rumble down certain Silverton streets.
That means more work for San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad, who is tasked with keeping order in Silverton.
For years, he has chronicled his duties in a blog printed in the Silverton Standard & Miner. OHV infractions get an inordinate amount of attention. Speeders, drinkers, noisemakers, crashers and drunks are noted. Half of all enforcement violations in the town during tourist seasons have been for OHV violations.
Conrad has occasionally let his frustration with OHVs be known in his crime chronicles: “issued 8 OHVs a verbal warning for even thinking about leaving the OHV route (Can you count to $600?