Protecting the backcountry

Aaron Kindle, Trout Unlimited

Responsible OHV riders, like the one shown above, stick to established trails and legal roads. But a small minority of rogue riders can cause untold damage to our public lands.

Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are a great tool for experiencing Colorado’s outdoors. They provide access to scenic vistas and beautiful forests for thousands of individuals each year and help spur our local economies.

Unfortunately, some folks choose to use OHVs in the wrong way. As the Alpine Ranger for the eastern part of the famous Alpine Triangle, I see firsthand what happens when people misuse OHVs. Every year, we have people who choose to drive off designated routes, destroying precious alpine tundra and degrading the experience of the many law-abiding OHV users.

Another irresponsible use currently legal here in Colorado is allowing adolescents to operate OHVs in areas where they will interact with other highway-legal vehicles and need to understand traffic laws. Adolescents are not versed in traffic laws and the ways of the road. They are many times physically unable to control today’s powerful OHVs. For example, under existing state statute, a 10-year-old child can legally operate an OHV with six passengers. Unfortunately, such unlicensed operation of an OHV sometimes leads to severe injury, and even death, as we saw twice this past summer in Southwest Colorado.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to address both of the issues mentioned above, and several other pressing issues related to OHV use, by passing state legislation that requires visible identification on OHVs (so that we can identify users engaged in illegal activity, rather than simply hearing reports of “a blue all-terrrain vehicle tearing up a meadow”) and requires riders to have an operator’s license and liability insurance.

Another boon to our economy and to OHV users would be the incentive created for counties to open certain county roads that connect legal routes on nearby public lands, thereby creating loop opportunities and removing the need for OHV users to trailer their OHVs simply to drive a mile or two to another trailhead, as they are currently required to do in many locales. The incentive would be created for counties by ensuring that people who operate on their roads would be subject to all traffic laws, be licensed operators, have insurance and be able to be identified by law enforcement officers should they choose to engage in illegal behavior.

Maybe most importantly, legislation could clear up the vast inconsistencies that now exist in OHV regulations from county to county. Right here in Southwest Colorado, for instance, some counties have roads open to OHV use while others do not, and some counties require insurance while others do not. Out-of-state licensed OHVs can come here and operate on all of our roads while the Coloradoans who pay for these roads have to adhere to local regulations, which may or may not grant them access to county and municipal roads. The result is a confusing mix of regulations that frustrates residents and visitors alike.

State legislation can solve these problems by creating consistent regulations that are easy to understand, make our roads and trails safer, and encourage responsible behavior.

I hope that our lawmakers will come together to solve this pressing issue. If they can, our roads and trails will be safer, our law enforcement officers will have the tools necessary to effectively enforce OHV laws and regulations, and in turn, our state will be a more enjoyable place for both resident and visiting outdoors enthusiasts.

Tom Reyburn is alpine ranger for the world-famous Alpine Loop. He lives in Lake City. Reach him at sjmtnman@gmail.com.

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