Confronting scofflaws


There are some places I don't like to write about, since in my experience, that's a quick way to trash the scenery. People read about it, decide to visit for themselves, and whatever solitude and splendor the spot offered has vanished. 

That's one reason I seldom mention an arid valley named Castle Gardens or Castle Gulch. But it has shown up in local trail guides, so I'll blame those authors if it begins to suffer.

Castle Gardens sits about two miles from Salida. We joke that it's our low-rent version of southern Utah, with some beehives, hoodoos, spires, goblins and the like, although made of soft gray shale instead of hard red sandstone. It was once promoted by local boosters as a must-see Colorado attraction like the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, but it never caught on. Nor did the city accept it in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson offered the federal land to the city as a park.
Given the terrain and the hobbies of certain elements of our population, it was inevitable that it would be an attraction for dirt bikes, ATVs and SUVs. About two years ago, the federal Bureau of Land Management adopted a new regional travel plan and closed the area to motor vehicles and even to mountain bikes. There are multiple signs which explain that access is limited to foot and horseback.
For the first quarter-mile or so, the trail goes through property owned by a local church, which has adopted a sensible access policy: pedestrians are welcome during daylight hours.
We walk our dog up there frequently. The scenery is great, and the gulch floor is relatively calm when it's windy everywhere else. But for us, the main attraction is that our dog Bodie is a car-chasing idiot, and there aren't any cars, or even motorcycles or bicycles, for him to chase up there.
Or there hadn't been for two years. Saturday, my wife and I were strolling along with Bodie and a friend and his dog when we heard the distinctive buzzing whines of dirt bikes. Soon we saw their tracks, chewing up both the valley floor and nearby hillsides. Finally we saw them, ripping around on the ridges before descending near us, where the two teenaged boys halted and stared down at us.

I was steaming mad. Despite all the whining about "locked-up lands" by the motorized-recreation lobby, there are many places nearby for them to cavort legally. There was a thought of "Maybe I should carry a rifle up here and teach them a little respect for the law."

Or "Could I train Bodie to chase their motorcycles, then lunge for their throats?" I mean, if they can't read the closure signs, do we really need them around?
They looked like punks we could take if it came to that, so I just shouted at them: "Don't you guys know it's illegal to drive up here?" They didn't respond, just started their cycles and headed down. Soon they were out of sight and their annoying sounds were gone.
But what should I have done? They don't have license plates, so you can't record those numbers. Later I called the sheriff's office, where a deputy explained that the closure is a federal policy, and his office doesn't enforce federal restrictions.
So I called the feds -- the local BLM ranger, John Nahomenuk. The BLM doesn't have a crew of enforcement rangers waiting by the phone, he said, "but if you had a cell phone and called to report them, we might get lucky," he said. "We can't really do much unless we catch them in the act."
Castle Gardens got that way on account of erosion, which is a serious problem, Nahomenuk said. "Vegetation is very sparse, and when vehicles break the ground, and then it rains, it brings tons of sediment down into the Arkansas River." Plus, it's home to a rare plant, the Brandegee wild buckwheat.
 And as much as the BLM wants to protect those resources from motorized abuse, he couldn't recommend vigilante action. So I did what I could, which didn't seem like enough.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.

Images of Castle Gulch courtesy of the author.

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