Colorado revamps moto-trails grant program

One of the earliest known off-road vehicles, built for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. PHOTO COURTESY THE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Panel will have more representation from non-motorized community and work with state biologists before awarding funds; more money could flow to restoration and enforcement

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Depending on who’s talking, off-road vehicle use in Colorado is either part of a multi-use recreational utopia on public lands, or a looming disaster for wildlife and other natural resources.

Trying to find a balance between the different viewpoints, the Colorado State Parks board last week added four representatives from the non-motorized recreation community to a committee that reviews and recommends grant funding for trail projects.

The board also directed the subcommittee to work with a Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist when it reviews grant applications, and clarified that grant funds can be used for restoration projects and enforcement of OHV rules.

“Colorado’s OHV program is recognized as one of the best in the nation and we feel these steps will improve the program’s ability to enhance and protect off-road recreational opportunities by virtue of improved communication and greater opportunity for collaboration,” said Bill Kane, president of the Colorado State Parks Board.

“The changes to the OHV Grant Review and Ranking Subcommittee represent the first changes to the OHV grant subcommittee review process in the last 10 years,” said Tom Morrissey, manager of the Colorado State Parks Trails Program. “When considered in its entirety, the changes to the OHV grant program are the most far reaching since the program’s inception.”

The board’s decision culminates a process of reviewing the OHV grant program that began in 2009 in response to criticism from a coalition of groups who advocate the for quiet use of public lands.

“The increase in backcountry motorized sports has generated much interest … both in terms of motorized sports enthusiasts and quiet use proponents,” said Morrissey. “The changes adopted by the state parks division and the state parks board are intended to reduce user conflicts and are designed to protect Colorado’s public lands.”

The groups Morrissey was referring to asked the state parks board to specifically earmark part of the multi-million dollar grant fund for restoration and enforcement, but the board wasn’t willing to go quite that far.

At a meeting in Frisco last year, Dave Peterson, of Colorado Trout Unlimited, Dave Peterson said enforcement and restoration efforts haven’t come close to keeping pace with the growth in off-road use in recent years. As a result, hunters and anglers have taken a big hit from motorized impacts, he said.

“We are getting lost in the shuffle. We’re not trying to take anything away from anyone. We’re just trying to protect our piece of the pie … There are legions of studies showing the impacts of motorized use,” he said. Directing some of the off-highway vehicle funds toward enforcement and restoration would help ensure motorized users pay their fair share of managing public resources, he said.

Motorized users represent themselves as victims of discrimination. The entire discussion of OHV grant funding is framed by “a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle bias” against motorized users, according to Glen Graham, president of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle coalition.

“There are problems and issues that need to be addressed. But the reality is not as bad as the perception,” he said. Broad-based, sweeping allegations against motorized users are unfounded, he added.

Forest Service officials, who are apparently living in a dream world where they don’t see the resource damage on the lands they manage, said the agency is moving toward sustainable motorized recreation use.

But a recently retired Colorado Division of Wildlife official said at the Frisco meeting that the situation on the ground is quite different from the images in glossy Forest Service recreation brochures.

The growth of motorized use has outstripped the ability of land managers to keep pace, said Rob Firth, formerly the chief law enforcement official with the state wildlife agency. In reality, illegal trail systems continue to expand in some areas, Firth said, making the case for more enforcement and restoration funding.

The off-highway funds are distributed under a complex points system, with each grant proposal being evaluated on a variety of criteria. Critics of the current system said it favors proposals for building and maintaining trails over funding for enforcement and restoration projects.

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