Where the rubber leaves the road

  Updated April 17, 2008

 

 

As of July 1, you might want to think twice about driving your ATV off designated trails in Colorado. That’s when HB 1069 – signed by Gov. Bill Ritter, D, on March 20 – goes into effect. In what might be the strongest attempt yet to keep off-road vehicles from ripping up the backcountry, the bill gives local peace officers the power to ticket off-roaders on federal lands. It’s a move that’s unprecedented in public-land management.

 

Now, Colorado county sheriffs, state Division of Wildlife law enforcement or even state police officers will be able to enforce off-road violations on national forest or Bureau of Land Management lands, writing tickets and imposing fines instead of just handing out court summons. “It’s a major shift in policy,” says one of the bill’s primary sponsors, Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. “People all across the country have been watching to see if this would pass.”

 

So will a bill like this really keep people from off-roading in prohibited areas?

 

“Any time we have more people out there who can cite people, it could help with prevention. More eyes, more feet on the ground,” says Paul Krisanits, a Forest Service law enforcement officer. If off-roaders think that there’s a good chance they’ll be seen going off designated routes and cited, they might decide to avoid the hassle – and the expense -- and stay on the trail.

 

The fine for riding off designated trails is $100 in a non-wilderness area, and $200 in a designated wilderness area. And if a rider is ticketed while hunting or fishing, he or she will also receive license suspension points. A non-wilderness violation gets 10 points, and a wilderness violation gets 15.

 

The real teeth of the bill could be in those suspension points. “Hunters and anglers are allowed 20 penalty points on a license,” says John Smeltzer of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. A $100 or $200 fine might not matter much to someone who can spend, say, $5,000 dollars on an ATV. But the license points could add up quickly and, as Smeltzer says, “You could lose your hunting and fishing privileges in Colorado,” as well as in the other 25 states that are part of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. (Under the 1989 agreement, a hunting or fishing suspension in any member state is recognized in the others.)

 

The new law has another important provision that federal agencies are already in the process of implementing. Previously, off-road trails were designated closed with signage. Anything without a sign was considered open. The new law reverses that: Signs and maps will designate trails as open, while anything unmarked will be considered closed.

 

But the state’s law enforcement officers won’t be handing out tickets right away. “The first year will be an educational transition period for everybody,” says Glenn Graham of the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition. That means lots of warnings will be given to rogue off-roaders, while the Forest Service and BLM begin to update their maps and post new signs. It’s the start of a more effective way to address off-road use on public lands, notes John Smeltzer. “This is a model piece of legislation for the West.”

 

The author is an intern for High Country News.
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