Stance on ORVS in Colorado’s San Juan Backcountry revisited

Lizard Head Wilderness Area in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado. Photo by George Wuerthner, Courtesy

The Rico-West Dolores landscape, located within the breathtaking San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado, is a popular retreat for hikers, horseback riders, wildlife viewers, and other quiet recreationists.

This landscape is tremendously rich in natural beauty and is perfect for quiet recreation activities in places like the Lizard Head Wilderness, the numerous backcountry roadless areas, and a stream found suitable for Congress to designate as a Wild and Scenic River. Its diverse topography, ranging from deep canyons to “14er” peaks is also abundant in biological diversity and holds significant habitat for many species including elk and lynx.

However, in December last, the Forest Service released a decision that designated where dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles can and can’t go in the forest. This, in turn, determines where hikers, fisherman, and other quiet recreationists must go to escape the noise and pollution from these machines.

Wilderness Society conservation and quiet recreation partners San Juan Citizens Alliance and Colorado Mountain Club have been working on this effort to protect the quiet backcountry on the San Juan National Forest for years. Upon ignoring most of our concerns that we’ve repeatedly raised for over two years, the Forest Service issued a decision that grossly failed to protect watershed quality, wildlife habitat, and areas popular among quiet recreationists. This partnership of conservation-friendly groups responded rapidly by appealing the decision, which was a necessary step to ensure this area of the San Juan National Forest is protected. In December 2009, to the delight of all the organizations that have been working on this effort, the Forest Service confirmed that there were indeed flaws in the initial findings and overturned the decision. This is great news for quiet recreationists, water, wildlife and the wildlands of southwest Colorado.

This means that the Forest Service effort to determine ORVs can and can’t go in the forest will effectively start over. We hope this time the Forest Service issues a decision that protects the backcountry and wildlife that inhabit the mesas, mountains, hills and valleys of this area.

The Forest Service’s appeal decision is welcomed by a wide variety of conservation groups in Colorado. However, the hard work is not over yet. With this planning effort starting over, The Wilderness Society and our partners in conservation will work to ensure these amazing wildlands are safeguarded now and into the future.

photo: Lizard Head Wilderness Area in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado. Photo by George Wuerthner, Courtesy