Photographic Documentation and Discussion of Motorized Trailbike Damage
to a Segment of the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
on the Alpine Tundra and in Adjoining Drainages
on the Rio Grande National Forest and Gunnison National Forest
San Juan Mountains, Colorado
   

a citizen's report prepared by:


Kathryn Mauz

University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85719

and

Weston K. Mauz
Timberline Llamas, Inc.
Golden, Colorado 80401

December 1999


Contents

Introduction
Motorized Routes in the Discussion Area
Motorized Travel Regulations and Violations in the Discussion Area
Policy on Motorized Use Impacts on Resources, and Impacts in the Discussion Area
Types of Trail Damage Observed, with Photographed Examples
Discussion and Recommendations
Concluding Remarks
 

This document was originally prepared for a meeting with the Conservation Director of the Colorado Mountain Club (Golden, CO) on 21 December 1999 addressing issues surrounding motorized use on public lands. The Appendices have been omitted from this version. Copies of the printed document were distributed to the Rio Grande National Forest, Gunnison National Forest, and Regional Forest Service offices, and to the Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado Trail Foundation, and Continental Divide Trail Alliance.


Introduction

The area addressed here is that portion of the Continental Divide from Spring Creek Pass to the headwaters of Pole Creek (Atlantic side) and Cataract Gulch (Pacific side) in the San Juan Mountains of south-central Colorado. Along this route, the Colorado Trail (CT) and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) are concurrent. In this area of Colorado, treeline lies at approximately 12000 ft (3650 m) elevation, and the stretch of the Continental Divide that is the subject of this discussion is almost continuously above this elevation and clothed with alpine tundra. Consult the map with regard to resources, travel routes, and damage incidences referred to in the following discussions.

MAP

Map of the Continental Divide at the Rio Grande Headwaters, (T38N-T43N, R1W-R6W)
showing motorized trails and unpaved roads on the Rio Grande National Forest, locations of
trailbike damage, and the proposed Handies Peak Wilderness Area 

Motorized Routes in the Discussion Area

The Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) Revised Forest Management Plan (henceforth the RGNF Plan) was implemented in 1996. The Transportation Management Record of Decision at that time designated the following trails and trail segments in the discussion area, within the Divide Ranger District, as follow:

 motorized

 non-motorized
 #787 La Garita Stock Driveway  #813 CDNST (Cataract Lake to Carson)
 #813 CDNST (Pole Creek)  #813 CDNST (Kitty/Ruby Creek Section)
 #820 Pole Creek  #918 Pole Creek
 #916 East Fork Middle Pole Creek  
 #917 Middle Pole Creek  
 #821 Lost Trail Creek  
 #822 West Lost Trail Creek  


The trails lists do not include four-wheel drive roads in this area. On the 1998 RGNF travel map, 4-WD roads are indicated crossing Jarosa Mesa linking Highway 149 near Lake San Cristobal to Spring Creek Pass; and leading to Carson from Wager Gulch to the north and crossing the Divide to continue a) across the tundra to Heart Lake and on to Highway 149, and b) into the alpine headwaters of Lost Trail Creek where motorized trails proceed both upstream and downvalley.

A review of the motorized/non-motorized lists above reveals contradictions. Of note is trail #787, which extends from Stony Pass to the west, through the Pole Creek drainages, along the Divide to Spring Creek Pass, and beyond to the east. This motorized route is in common with portions of at least the motorized trails #813 (Pole Creek), #820, uppermost #821, and possibly parts of #916 and #917; and in common with the non-motorized trail segments #813 (Cataract Lake to Carson), #813 (Kitty/Ruby Creek Section), and the lower part of #918.

It is not possible from published, publicly-available sources to ascertain the precise and full extent of each route number, and the numbers of some of the routes listed above do not appear on any available map. On the 1998 RGNF travel map, only trails #813, #820, #916, #917, #821, and #822 are shown as motorized; #787 the La Garita Stock Driveway is not shown as motorized despite its listing as such in the RGNF Plan. It is recommended that clarification of overlapping motorized/non-motorized route designations and publication of a map containing all route numbers for all trail segments be made by the RGNF.
 

Motorized Travel Regulations and Violations in the Discussion Area

What the overlap of a continuous motorized route with non-motorized segments means for the status of the non-motorized segments is not known at this time. Personal communication with the RGNF Recreation Coordinator indicates, however, that the "trail 813 going east and west from the Carson area is designated as a non-motorized trail." The assessments to follow will assume that this means that the non-motorized segments of the CDNST (#813-Cataract Lake to Carson and # 813-Kitty/Ruby Creek Section), despite their overlap with motorized trail #787, are amenable to non-motorized route regulations and management.

The travel regulations legend of the 1998 RGNF travel map prohibits use of motorized vehicles off of unnumbered routes, beyond travel restriction signs or barricades, and on any trail but an officially designated motorized route.

Evidence of illegal motorized travel on the Gunnison NF in Cataract Gulch was observed and photographed in July 1998, and reported to both the Gunnison and Rio Grande National Forests. Trailbikes were observed arriving from the Pole Creek drainage and continuing east on the CT/CDNST toward Carson in July/August 1994, July/August 1998, and July 1999. Several additional instances of motorized travel between Pole Creek/Cataract Gulch and Carson, and still further east of Carson toward Jarosa Mesa and Spring Creek Pass (on the non-motorized Kitty/Ruby Creek Section of the CDNST), in early September 1999 are documented here photographically.

As of September 1999, there has been no establishment of signage at either the head of Pole Creek where the CT/CDNST continues east to Carson, at the head of Lost Trail Creek where the CT/CDNST continues west to Cataract Lake, or at Coney Mountain where 4-WD road 518 intersects the CT/CDNST as the trail diverges to the northeast prohibiting motor vehicle travel beyond these points. It is clear that motorized trailbike users of these trails are failing to self-police themselves. They are engaging in cross-country travel, are traveling on non-motorized routes, and are not remaining on the trails where they ride either legally or illegally.
 

Policy on Motorized Use Impacts on Resources, and Impacts in the Discussion Area

The travel regulations legend of the 1998 RGNF travel map stipulates that motorized travel shall not cause damage to the land or streams. The provisions of Executive Order 11644, issued in 1972 "in furtherance of the purpose and policy of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969," make particular stipulations for management of off-road vehicles and their impacts, which are excerpted here:

Section 3. Zones of Use: "The regulations [made by the respective land management agencies] shall further require that the designation of such areas and trails shall be in accordance with the following:

1) "Areas and trails shall be located to minimize damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, or other resources of the public lands;
2) "Areas and trails shall be located to minimize harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitats;"

Several types of damage to natural resources have occurred and worsened over the past several years due to motorized trailbike activity on the tundra. Destruction of alpine tundra vegetation has occurred through compaction by off-trail riding and through increased erosion by exposure of soil profiles and disturbance of the substrate. Erosion resulting from motorized trailbike activity occurs through trail incision and rill erosion in the resulting grooves, through formation and coalescing of parallel trails, through switchback cutting, through "splash-out" at water-collecting low spots on trails, and through disturbance of natural seepage and flow containment processes at stream banks and in wet areas (e.g., fens and sedge meadows).

The cumulative impact of these disturbances of habitat elements will extend upward to wildlife in the area. Already, it has been the personal observation of the authors that elk herds avoid meadows proximal to motorized routes; the shyness of moose and bighorn sheep will produce the same behavior. Such displacement of consumer fauna further impacts predators whose ranges and populations must adjust to the changes in the distribution of their prey animals.

Damage to sedge meadows impacts favored elk forage directly; increased erosion and sedimentation can impact forage of large herbivores including moose, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep through diminished productivity of alpine dry meadows, alpine and subalpine wet meadows, and shallow-water aquatic ecosystems that may be vulnerable to siltation. In alpine dry meadows particularly, and increasingly with elevation, tundra vegetation is extraordinarily vulnerable to abrasion and to dissection of soils which renders roots vulnerable to desiccation and formation of needle ice. Loss of vegetative cover contributes to an ongoing cycle of erosion against which the slow-growing tundra plants can offer no buffer.

The cultural resources in the discussion area, and even in all of the alpine zone on the Rio Grande and Gunnison National Forests, are little known at this time. One of the authors has, since 1992, been inventorying archaeological sites in tundra areas along the Continental Divide. Efforts have revealed that there is a rich source of information in these areas that remains to be catalogued, much less understood in the context of the wider region. Motorized trails, as well as unofficial spurs, in the discussion area pass through archaeological deposits, causing erosion detrimental to the deposit itself and potentially injuring the artifacts. This kind of damage is even more irreparable than damage to vegetation, and is as enduring as damage to streams and soils. Continued, and increasing, off-road motorized traffic in these areas where fragile vegetation and shallow soils cannot absorb the impacts will diminish or eliminate the potential for studying the prehistory of the area.
 

Types of Trail Damage Observed, with Photographed Examples

The images compiled here are subdivided into eight types of damage, with the acknowledgment that more than one type of damage may appear in each image:

· new track formation (locations 1, 9, 18:1998, 18:1999)
· multiple trail syndrome (locations 6, 14, 16, 17)
· trail incision and rill erosion (location 8)
· switchback cutting (locations 5, 7)
· damage to wet areas (location 2)
· bog formation (locations 4, 11, 12)
· bank and channel disturbance (location 20)
· splash-out erosion (location 10)

The location and other information pertaining to each image is enclosed in brackets ({}) in the descriptions that follow, and the numbers of each image correspond to locations on the map. Not all locations of observed and/or photographed trailbike damage are pictured here.
 

New Track Formation

This type of damage is a precursor to Multiple Trail Syndrome. It is evidenced by tracks paralleling established trails, often as matted vegetation. Leaving the established trail appears to be related to trail width and depth, and to trail rockiness. Trailbike use can exacerbate both of these conditions, contributing to the deepening of trails and to erosion which exposes rocks in the trails. One case of a new track becoming a case of multiple trail syndrome is illustrated at location 18: a track of matted vegetation in 1998 has become a dirt trail in 1999.

Location 1: trailbike tracks through subalpine meadow, showing new track to right around wet area, original trail at left {headwaters of Big Buck Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 9: trailbike track with groove and rill erosion, multiple tracks paralleling trail, looking downvalley {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 18 (1998, left; 1999, right): trailbike tracks cutting off a curve on the trail, becoming a devegetated (dirt) track in one year's time {pass SE of Cataract Lake, head of Pole Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO; 8-98, K.Mauz and 9-99, W.Mauz}
click to see an updated time series with 9-2000 and 9-2002

click to see the same location in 2003 with another new track just being formed

Multiple Trail Syndrome

This damage type develops when tracks made parallel to an existing trail become devegetated and begin to incise. Multiple such tracks develop as each becomes too deep or otherwise unfavorable to motorized trailbike use. The development of multiple trails is accelerated by rill erosion.
 

Location 6: trailbike tracks in snow paralleling trail on alpine tundra {E flank of Coney Mtn, looking uphill, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 14: trailbike track parallel to trail on alpine tundra, looking uphill {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 16: trailbike tracks parallel to and cutting off a curve of the trail on alpine tundra, looking southwest {uppermost Pole Creek, opposite Lost Trail Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 17: trailbike tracks parallel to trail on alpine tundra, looking southwest and downvalley toward Pole Creek {uppermost Pole Creek, opposite Lost Trail Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}
click to view a time series with 9-2000 and 9-2002

Trail Incision and Rill Erosion

This type of damage results from the two-fold action of disturbance of the trailbed and either permanent or ephemeral surface water flow down the trail. Trails deepen and are typically narrow, causing users to move off to the side and encouraging them to create a new trail next to the old one. This pattern of erosion contributes to both new track formation and Multiple Trail Syndrome.

 

Location 8: trailbike track with groove and rill erosion in alpine tundra, looking upvalley {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Switchback Cutting

At trail switchbacks, motorized trailbikes cut off the inside corners of the turn, often while accelerating. This has the effect of gouging out soil and rocks, destabilizing the cuts, inducing erosion, and widening the switchback.

Location 5: trailbike track carving off the corner of a switchback in alpine tundra {pass N of Coney Mtn, looking uphill to NE, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 7: trailbike track carving off the corner of a switchback in alpine tundra {SW flank of Coney Mtn, looking uphill to NE, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}
click to see an updated photo comparison with 9-2002

Damage to Wet Areas

This kind of damage can include groove formation, disturbance of vegetation, and disturbance of surface water and seepage.

 

Location 2: trailbike tracks in wet ground at the edge of woods, showing multiple tracks and deep grooves {headwaters of Big Buck Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Bog Formation

Repeated groove formation, splash-out, destruction of vegetation, and disturbance of surface water and seepage by motorized trailbike use in either ephemerally or permanently wet areas or at stream crossings and springs can contribute to bog formation. The area becomes quagmire-like, with extensive muddy areas, standing silted water, and is without vegetation. These areas tend to stabilize in Fall and Winter, but can be reactivated the following Spring and Summer and continue to grow.

Location 4: trailbike tracks in subalpine wooded area, showing bog formation, multiple tracks, grooves with rill erosion {headwaters of Big Buck Creek, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 11: trailbike tracks on alpine tundra showing grooves and bog formation, looking uphill, {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Location 12: trailbike tracks on alpine tundra showing grooves and bog formation, looking uphill {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Bank and Channel Disturbance

This type of damage occurs at crossings of flowing water. Motorized trailbikes may cut into banks and cause widening of the channel, muddying of the water, deepening of the channel, and/or diversion of water from the channel into the trail.

Location 20: trailbike track through outlet of small lake NW of Cataract Lake, in a non-motorized area; the track proceeds across open tundra {Cataract Lake Basin, Gunnison NF, San Juan Mountains, CO, 8-98, K.Mauz}

Splash-Out Erosion

Widening and deepening of trails occurs at spots where water collects and is then splashed out of the trail along with fine sediment by fast-moving, motorized trailbikes. The result is a hole in the trail that is then more prone to collecting water, and the deepening and widening process continues until a detour is made around the hole leading to new track formation or may lead to bog formation.

Location 10: trailbike track on alpine tundra, showing splash-out and groove formation {upper Lost Trail Creek, S of Carson Peak, RGNF, CT/CDNST, San Juan Mountains, CO, 9-99, W.Mauz}

Discussion and Recommendations

Executive Order 11644 contains language making possible revisions to trail system management plans:

Section 8. Monitoring of Effects and Review: "(a) The respective agency head shall monitor the effects of off-road vehicles on lands under their jurisdiction. On the basis of the information gathered, they shall from time to time amend or rescind [motorized] designation of areas or other actions taken pursuant to this order as necessary to further the policy of this order."

Given the intensity and extent of damage to natural and cultural resources by motorized trailbike activity, over a period of only the last few to several years, in the discussion area and particularly on the alpine tundra it is clear that the current RGNF Plan is not sufficient to ensure compliance with the NEPA regulations for off-road vehicle use. The RGNF Transportation Management Record of Decision makes the assertion that the "[trail] system as mapped will offer a variety of motorized/nonmotorized use across the forest in an environmentally acceptable way." It is clear that the compatibility of the plan with the environment was overestimated, and that reassessment is necessary.

With this record standing as a potential violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the authors make the following recommendations for revision of the RGNF Plan:

· It is recommended that no areas of tundra be crossed by motorized trails.

· It is recommended that no wet meadows be crossed by motorized trails.

· It is recommended that all trails be designated non-motorized until and unless full-scale cultural resources inventories are conducted for the areas along trail routes.

· It is recommended that any area containing cultural resources on or alongside a trail should be permanently designated as non-motorized.

· It is recommended that motor vehicles be prohibited from riding through any area or on any trail that is permanently or ephemerally wet or contains water, and that users be required to walk their vehicles through these areas.

The RGNF Transportation Management Record of Decision further states that "The map clearly describes where people can go to either enjoy or avoid motorized activities." It is reiterated here that the motorized/non-motorized designations made in the Transportation Management ROD lists and on the RGNF Travel Map are not clear, and contradictions should be rectified. Further, segregation of use, as this passage suggests, neither avoids nor remedies the damage caused by motorized vehicle activity, and it is not an acceptable planning orientation. Ensuring compatibility between the environment and recreation must begin at the planning stage with the needs and tolerances of the environment first and the demands of recreation groups considered only secondarily, accompanied by appropriate signage and education of trail users, and followed up with monitoring of impacts and enforcement of regulations.
 

Concluding Remarks

The area addressed in the preceding discussion contains some of the highest and largest, continuous tracts of alpine tundra in the contiguous United States. The area includes some of the highest peaks in the state as well as large, glacial basins and valleys that support some of the largest summer herds of elk in southern Colorado. The tundra here is serviced by the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Substantial portions are classified as Research Natural Areas, and part of this area is within a Wilderness Study Area.

The apex of the "Big Bend" that part of the Divide that runs east-west through the San Juan Mountains like a giant hairpin lies within the proposed (1999) Handies Peak Wilderness. Passage of the Wilderness bill containing this designation would allow trails in the Cuba Gulch, Cataract Gulch, Pole Creek, Lost Trail Creek, and West Lost Trail Creek drainages to enjoy permanent non-motorized status, and could provide the opportunity for these areas to recover from the damage that has already been done.

Apart from this effort, areas and resources that are both part of and not included in the Wilderness bill whether discussed herein or occurring elsewhere on the RGNF will continue to be permanently, irreversibly impacted until trail use policy and management approaches are changed.


See also:

Executive Order 11644--Use of off-road vehicles on the public lands

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