Tempestuous political winds are blowing through Colorado's busiest forest.

Snowmobiles are now allowed free reign over much of the forest outside of designated wilderness areas, which take up about a third of the land. Under the Forest Service's proposed plan, the non-wilderness area of the forest would be split roughly into thirds. Snowmobiles would be able to go wherever they wanted in one third, but they'd have to stay on designated trails in another; the final third would be off limits.

The intent is to limit motorized use to certain parts of the forest, and Wolf insists that's a mistake. "If you take all of the wintertime users and confine them to trails, you'll wind up with a large number of people concentrated in the same area," he says. "It's better to disperse the users, because there's less resource damage. If you let snowmobilers go wherever they want to go, you'll cause less damage."

Wolf also says that snowmobiles cause little harm to the forest compared to ATVs, which are used primarily in the summer. There are about 28,000 snowmobiles registered in Colorado. "In the summer, when the snow is gone and there are fragile areas, you obviously don't want people there," he says. "In the winter, when there's several feet of snow on the ground, it's pretty hard to damage something."

Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.
Anthony Camera
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.
Anthony Camera
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.

However, many people think that snowmobiles are highly stressful to wildlife, especially at a time of year that's difficult for animals. "They're looking for food and are cold, and it definitely stresses them," says Vera Smith, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club. "If snowmobiles stay on designated routes, the wildlife becomes habituated to them. When the snowmobiles wander, they have a considerable impact on wildlife."

Non-motorized users of the forest outnumber motorized users by an estimated 11 to 1 during the summer. (In the winter, those numbers are about 2.5 to 1.) Many people who hike, camp, hunt, fish, snowshoe or ski cross-country find off-road vehicles annoying and insist they're an offense to anyone who enters the forest seeking some peace and quiet. "We're disturbed at what we consider to be an unregulated proliferation of motors in the backcountry," says Smith. "We've seen a huge increase in this. Is our backcountry going to become a mini-highway system?"

Smith says the four-wheel ATVs are especially damaging, since they can blast through creeks, roar up mountain sides and tear up tundra without the cushion of snow that separates snowmobiles from the earth. The ATVs are also used to carve new, unauthorized roads into the forest, which can cause erosion and runoff problems. "Ecologically, the land can't take all this motorization. ATVs are growing rapidly and becoming really popular. They don't need to be on roads anymore -- the technology has developed to that point. The ads for them show people screaming through wetlands. That's not what these machines should be used for on our public lands."

Under Alternative D, ATVs would be allowed only on designated trails.

ATV enthusiasts say they've been unfairly targeted by the Forest Service. They agree that ATVs should have to stay on trails, but they want to be able to develop little-used roads that were cut into the forest for timber harvesting and natural-gas exploration into a network of looping trails for motorized vehicles. "Alternative D would preclude that from ever happening," says Randy Parsons of the White River Forest Alliance, which represents ATV owners. He adds that ATV drivers for the most part already stay on trails, although he acknowledges there are some who abuse the land, especially during hunting season. He believes ATVs have become a good scapegoat for the environmental movement. "They despise ATVs," he says. "But in terms of damage to the land, they do far less damage than a horse."

Following the uproar over the Forest Service's preferred plan, the deadline for public comment on the plan was extended to May 9. More than 12,000 people submitted comments to the Forest Service offices in Glenwood Springs. Regional Forester Lyle Laverty will have the final say, but he's not expected to make a decision until sometime early next year. (Further complicating the issue was President Clinton's recent proposal to prohibit new roads in 43 million acres of forest nationwide; that proposal could also have a dramatic impact on White River's future.)

Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Greg Walcher made his opposition to the Forest Service plan clear last fall. (Walcher is the former director of Club 20, a lobby for business interests on the Western Slope.) In comments submitted to the Forest Service in December, the CDNR withheld statements by state Division of Wildlife biologists who argued that Alternative D was the best plan for wildlife. Environmentalists later charged that Walcher had censored the comments of the state's own experts. Department spokeswoman Susan Wadhams denies the charge, saying, "It was not censorship, but a matter of coordination."

U.S. Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck is largely responsible for the agency's new emphasis on forest health and wildlife. After years of bitter warfare between environmentalists and the government over clear-cutting, road building, and protection of endangered species, Dombeck has embraced an agenda that emphasizes the health of watersheds and land. Taking his lead from President Clinton, he has clearly signaled to his employees that environmental concerns should have more weight in the decisions they make.

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