SILVERTON – Officials from San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale and Ouray counties are looking to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to help fund their modest Alpine Ranger Program, which, for the past decade or so, has sent two so-called “Alpine Rangers” into the backcountry throughout the summer as ambassadors to burgeoning crowds of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts.
But after a large multi-agency powwow held in Silverton earlier this week that was also attended by OHV advocacy groups and regional tour operators, the counties and CPW appear to have reached a stalemate, due to conflicting regulations between the state and the counties regarding OHV use.
CPW, the state agency tasked with administering the state OHV program, holds the purse strings to a $4.2 million pot of funds obtained through the state’s registration sticker requirement of $25.25 per OHV per year. These funds are distributed through grants to help fund OHV trail maintenance, safety programs and other requests throughout the state that come in largely from OHV user groups as well as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management each year.
It seems logical that the agency which administers the state’s OHV program should also channel some of these funds toward the Alpine Ranger Program, which more than anything else is tasked with keeping an eye on OHV users in the rugged high country, offering directions, advice, and occasionally even first aid or a siphoned tank of gas.
The problem, explained CPW Motorized Trail Coordinator Ryan Crabb, is that the four counties that operate the Alpine Ranger Program are also using it, at least in part, to enforce local regulations that are not consistent with the state’s OHV rules.
Three of the four counties (San Miguel, San Juan and Hinsdale) all require OHV operators to be licensed drivers (therefore at least 16 years old) as well as to carry liability insurance. Ouray County has a liability insurance requirement but no license requirement.
State regulations, meanwhile, say that on any Forest Service, BLM, county, or city roads that are open to OHV use, children as young as 10 may operate an OHV as long as they are under the direct supervision (at minimum visual) of a licensed adult.
Officials from San Miguel and San Juan counties who attended the meeting uniformly defended their choice to require OHV operators within their jurisdictions to be licensed drivers – especially on the heels of two fatalities of children who were operating OHVs on rather tame roads in San Juan and Ouray counties last summer.
“In good conscience, we can’t allow 10 year olds to drive on our high alpine roads,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes. “It’s almost a moral issue for us. We have put over $100,000 into the Alpine Ranger program and we have seen children killed. We think it’s really the elephant in the room. I am at the point where I am so fed up, I’m ready to say the hell with it. We will just close the damn roads (to OHVs). That doesn’t help anyone, but it’s certainly a response to fact that the state is refusing to fund our programs because our rules are inconsistent.”
Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, following on the heels of Goodtimes, identified another elephant in room: the budget. The counties are hurting from declining property tax revenues, she said, and are having a harder and harder time scratching together the money to fund the Alpine Ranger Program, even as CPW’s grant subcommittee is looking for ways to give away a $4.2 million pot of cash each year.
The two Alpine Rangers employed in the Alpine Ranger Program divvy up their terrain into east and west sections of terrain. Thomas Reyburn, the “eastern” ranger, focuses on the Alpine Loop in San Juan and Hinsdale counties, and is currently funded through a patchwork of sources, including $5,000 from each of the two counties, $2,000 from the BLM, and additional contributions from ATV user groups and tour operators adding up to a total of $15,000.
“We continually experience the difficulty of dealing with guests who have checked the CPW website and read that ten year olds can drive any OHV anywhere in the state,” Reyburn noted in his 2013 season report. “I have requested that CPW footnote that page to clarify that several counties have additional ordinances ... but those requests have not been granted. I issue warnings only to these people – not citations,” he added.
Jeff Riddle, the “western” Alpine Ranger, patrols numerous 4WD roads in Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan counties, and is funded primarily through a hefty annual contribution from San Miguel County. Riddle noted in his 2013 annual report that “OHV use continues to surge,” with the number of contacts increased 65 percent over the past year. “Noncompliance is most often a result of confusion regarding the laws, rather than intentional disregard,” he said.
From the two reports, San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir argued, “We can gather that the program is working. It has been a complete success. Our rangers have this ordinance power of enforcement and if needed they use it, but the program is more akin to a welcoming program.”
CPW officials reiterated their stance that they could not directly support county programs that are in conflict with state regs, but eventually suggested that the counties can come up with alternate grant requests – funding for snow removal to open up OHV routes in the high country in the early summer, for example. The counties could then re-direct funds they would have spent on snow removal toward supporting their Alpine Ranger program.
One thing that everyone in the room agreed upon is that more and better safety education is needed, as long as children are permitted to operate OHVs in Colorado. Brian Hawthorne, a representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition that focuses on national OHV and snowmobile issues who traveled from Idaho to attend Tuesday’s meeting, recommended that Colorado officials should look to Utah for an example of a successful OHV training program for minors.
Silverton resident Bill Dodge, meanwhile, identified a final elephant in the room – one which he argued was capable of providing funding not only for the development of such a safety program but also for the entire Alpine Ranger program. That elephant, he said, is the billion dollar OHV industry.
“Why don’t we have industry representatives in the room justifying why they are putting us in this situation?” he asked. “If we had a responsible industry and a responsible state, we would not have to have this conversation.”
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