A new route for dirt bikes is being proposed in the San Juan Mountains, which some Silverton locals fear will compromise one of the last quiet, unmotorized places in the nearby backcountry.
“Minnie Gulch is one of the last untouched areas with no motors,” said Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner. “It’s a trail where you can find peace and quiet.”
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management has been re-evaluating its system of trails in the mountains around Silverton, in what’s called a “travel management plan.”
As part of that process, a coalition of three advocate groups for dirt biking proposed building a new 1.75-mile trail over alpine tundra at the top of Minnie Gulch, which would essentially connect County Road 24 and Forest Service Road 917, near Stony Pass.
As it currently stands, County Road 24 dead-ends up Minnie Gulch. In the 1.75 miles between the county road and Forest Service Road 917, there is little trace of a trail, which is open to non-motorized use.
“They would have to construct it,” said Willy Tookey, San Juan County administrator. “What’s there is a hit-and-miss trail and isn’t designed for motorized use.”
The proposal to allow dirt bikes has raised concerns that it will compromise the fragile high country and degrade prime elk habitat by creating more traffic.
The entire board of San Juan County commissioners has come out against the proposal, Fetchenheir said.
“It’s pristine alpine tundra up there,” he said. “We’re totally against allowing motorized travel there. And I’m a dirt-biker. But I also want some areas untouched.”
The new route would have to cross the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, which are the same trail in that section.
“Since inception, it has been our goal to reduce the number of trail miles (on the Colorado Trail) where motorized uses are allowed,” said Bill Manning, executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation.
In March, the three dirt-bike advocacy groups – Durango-based San Juan Trail Riders, Trails Preservation Alliance and PAPA Telluride – sent a letter to BLM proposing the route.
In the letter, the groups argue that motorized use was allowed in the area in question until it was closed off in 1997. The groups say connecting the two roads would create a loop to allow for more dirt bike travel. And, they say they would contribute funding to the construction of the route.
“We’ll try to mitigate whatever damage we can by going around the (wetlands),” said Clive Heller, a member of San Juan Trail Riders.
Heller said the groups intend to place signs around the area to make sure ATVs don’t use the route, and they would like to start construction next summer, depending on what the BLM decides.
“It would be a safer, better experience,” Heller said. “We’d be able to go up Pole Creek on the Rio Grande (National Forest) side, then ride down to Animas Forks without having to go on Stony Pass.”
Brant Porter, a spokesman for BLM, said the agency is evaluating whether building a new road and allowing motorized use is appropriate for Minnie Gulch. He said impacts to other trails, the environment and wildlife will be considered.
Porter added that an initial assessment of the area determined an entirely new 1.75-mile route would have to be built.
“What’s there ... is not in a good location and doesn’t exist in some places,” he said. “It would have to be rerouted ... for it to ever come to fruition.”
The BLM is expected to release its final decision Dec. 5. The public comment period for the travel management plan was held over the summer, and there will be no more opportunities for input, he said.
Fetchenheir said he isn’t optimistic BLM will preserve the area.
“They are so bent on multi-use, they’ll OK anything,” he said. “And there’s some really powerful lobbying groups for dirt biking (involved).”