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Off-highway vehicles are revving up locals (in a bad way) in Colorado’s remote mountain towns

Inundated with by go-anywhere motorized vehicles, local governments are struggling to find a balance between welcoming the spending by “motorheads” and keeping their towns from resembling sets for a Mad Max movie.

Off-highway vehicles parked outside of the Taylor Park Trading Post near the small town of Tin Cup, Colorado, in Gunnison County on June 2, 2021. The increasing popularity of these machines is creating controversy in the small mountain communities of Lake City, Silverton, Marble and Tin Cup because of noise and crowding. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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When Teri Havens bought two acres tucked in a thick stand of aspen on a hill south of Marble in 1995, it was her bit of backcountry nirvana. 

Yes, it sat along a popular jeeping trail  ̶  a county road leading to the historic Lead King Loop. But she could live with four-wheel-drive vehicles jouncing past her place on their way into the White River National Forest; the drivers shared her appreciation for the beauty up the trail at the fringe of a wilderness area.

Eight years ago, that began to change. 

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Havens’ backcountry home slipped from tranquil into periodically hellish when a new breed of off-highway vehicles began blasting by in buzzing, whining, roaring caravans.

The vehicles kick dust hundreds of feet into the air. At times, they blare music and flash colored, blinking lights from antenna-like wands and high-intensity bars. Political statement flags flap from roll bars. Havens can’t recognize the drivers who are hidden behind goggles, helmets and ear protectors.

Havens and her neighbors now find human waste and toilet paper littering the edges of their property. There have been times when they have been trapped in their driveways by backcountry vehicles gridlocking the narrow road as far as they can see. In the scattering of buildings that make up Marble, they have to contend with a parking lot filled with big exhaust-belching trucks hauling trailers loaded with the newfangled vehicles.  

“They are more numerous. They are more aggressive,” Havens said. “I feel like we are on the verge of a crisis. I hate to be all doomsday about it, but it really feels that way.”

A web of laws and regulations

Marble, a historic mining town of 140 residents in the upper Crystal River Valley near Carbondale, is by no means alone in grappling with an unprecedented, pandemic-boosted surge in off-highway vehicle use. 

In 2015, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division that oversees OHV use counted 170,000 of the vehicles registered in the state. Last year, there were 203,873. Around 46,000 of those came from out of state. 

Many rural, and often remote, Colorado towns inundated with the go-anywhere motorized vehicles are struggling to find a balance between welcoming the spending by “motorheads” and keeping their towns from resembling sets for a Mad Max movie.

About 99 percent of all OHV trails in Colorado are on public lands, but municipalities and counties have become staging areas or pass through for trail-bound OHVs. These local governments have the often-contentious choice to put out the welcome mat or the “Closed” sign for these vehicles because Colorado is among states where off-highway vehicles are banned on public roads, streets and highways  ̶  unless the local entities opt to allow them.

Putting the onus on communities has led to a mishmash of regulations that can be trickier for motorized users to navigate than the diciest backcountry trail. Towns including Craig, Meeker, Westcliffe, Silvercliff, Leadville and Parachute welcome OHVs on all streets without restrictions. Some counties, including Custer and Delta, have opened all county roads to OHVs.

Aspen and Pitkin County have nixed them on their roads. The small Western Slope farming town of Dolores has too, following charged debate that ended with 60% of residents voting no to OHVs’ noise and dust.

Other counties and towns have instituted age, speed, gear and hour restrictions. They have OK’d OHV use on some streets, but not others. They have a variety of penalties for violations.

Riders from Palisade and Grand Junction prepare their Can-Am Outlander at the Lead King trailhead in Marble. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

To snarl the regulations even further, the state, municipalities, counties and public land management agencies have cobbled together a patchwork of agreements on certain trails and access roads linked to trails in some popular OHV areas, including Marble.

Marble sits along the Lead King Loop, a 13-mile rugged road that cuts through the White River National Forest and winds along the edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.

Access to the Lead King Loop Road ran into problems because of an oversight. For the past six years, Gunnison County had an exemption that allowed OHVs on the county-owned section of road between the town limits and a hill leading to the beginning of the U.S. Forest Service loop road.

But the county inadvertently left a gap in that exemption. It OK’d OHV travel on 0.7 miles of road, but left out another 0.8 miles needed to connect Marble town roads to the Forest Service loop road. Legally, OHV drivers had to stop short of accessing the loop.

In May, the Gunnison County Commission proposed a resolution to close the gap. That set off fireworks. Concerned citizens wanted to keep that no-OHV gap in place to limit the disruptive traffic.

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The commissioners ended up allowing OHVs to use the county road until the end of the year, when the issue can be revisited.

During that time, Marble and the county agreed to foot part of the bill for a Forest Service ranger to keep an eye on the Lead King Loop. The county also assigned two deputies to patrol that remote end of the county.

In the meantime, another dispute over a Marble town parking lot has turned into one more skirmish point in the OHV battle. The town had designated the Marble Mill Site Park parking lot for OHV-hauling trucks and trailers. But that turned out to not be allowed under the park’s designation as a national historic site that milled local marble for the Lincoln Memorial.

Anti-OHVers, who viewed the parking lot use as a noisy, air polluting blemish in the heart of their town and a slap in the face of history, chalked up a win.

The U.S. Forest Service is working on new management plans that may eventually bring other relief.  Marble residents say there is some hope the agency may come up with a permitting system or establish alternating days for different users to relieve some of the pressure and conflict.

Marble residents say they don’t expect that to happen quickly because the agency is using the same land management tools put in place back when dirt bikes and electric bicycles were the problem  ̶  not lightning-fast vehicles that can make their way over any terrain and bank turns that widen trails into deep-dish roads.

“A need to make some changes” 

The San Juan Mountain town of Silverton is in the running with Marble for the touchiest OHV controversy.

After seven years of all-terrain-vehicle headaches that came with allowing the vehicles on select town streets, the Silverton Board of Trustees in May adopted an ordinance that prohibits OHVs on streets, alleyways and rights-of-way within town limits “in the best interests, welfare and safety of the residents.”

The ban was to take effect on June 19, but a citizens’ group that included many business owners, torpedoed that with a referendum that has forced a citizen vote this fall. In the meantime, OHVs can continue to rumble down certain Silverton streets.

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

That means more work for San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad, who is tasked with keeping order in Silverton.

For years, he has chronicled his duties in a blog printed in the Silverton Standard & Miner. OHV infractions get an inordinate amount of attention. Speeders, drinkers, noisemakers, crashers and drunks are noted. Half of all enforcement violations in the town during tourist seasons have been for OHV violations.

Conrad has occasionally let his frustration with OHVs be known in his crime chronicles: “issued 8 OHVs a verbal warning for even thinking about leaving the OHV route (Can you count to $600?)

Signs targeted at OHV’s (off-highway vehicles) are posted around the town and in front of businesses in Lake City. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lake City, Colorado’s “Cannibal Capital” and the only incorporated town in sparsely populated Hinsdale County, allows OHVs to drive on streets that once teemed with miners and gunslingers. The town and its environs have long been a targeted getaway for vacationing Texans, and the proliferation of the visitors’ off-highway vehicles has prompted some detractors to dub them “Texas wheelchairs.”

Beginning this summer, OHVs can use a 3.3-mile section of Colorado 149 that traverses the town and connects the popular Alpine Loop, a rugged four-wheel-drive road that winds over high-mountain passes between Lake City, Ouray, Silverton and Telluride.

The Colorado Department of Transportation Commission approved that link through a three-year pilot program with the town and Hinsdale County. It carries a roster of local rules that build on state rules.

The state regulations are bare-bones. They require Colorado OHVs to display a registration sticker or a permit for out-of-state users (obtained online or in outdoor stores for $25.25). 

Lake City also requires proof of liability insurance, a driver’s license in the driver’s possession, passenger restraints and child seats, eye protection, and helmets for those under 18. In Lake City and Hinsdale County, the OHVs can only carry as many passengers as there are seats.

Fines for offenses in Lake City and the surrounding county have been doubled. An OHV scofflaw can end up paying as much as $1,000.

Lake City and its nearby mountain roads have sprouted numerous signs warning OHV drivers to “Know before you go in an OHV.” The campaign is also being used in San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray counties. The four-county coalition is an effort to put some uniform regulatory brakes on problematic OHV drivers.

“We’ve had OHVs in our community for years, but after what we saw last year there was a need to make some changes to continue to allow them,” Hinsdale County Commissioner Kristie Borchers said. “We needed to let people know ‘you are welcome to come here, but these are our rules.’” 

Those changes weren’t an easy sell in Lake City, where motorized visitors mean money in the coffers of restaurants, motels and souvenir shops. Borchers called it a “long, arduous public process.”

In neighboring Gunnison County, Marble isn’t the only problem spot. The tiny occupied “ghost town” of Tin Cup has been overrun with 25-vehicle-long caravans of mountain-pass-tackling OHVs that stop to take a break at Frenchy’s On the Pond café and sometimes to frighten and annoy residents by peering into the windows of occupied historic mining cabins.

Pitkin, the oldest incorporated town on the Western Slope, had to buck some unneighborly controversy in recent years over OHVs overrunning the streets. It was settled  ̶  for the time being  ̶  by imposing a 15-mph speed limit and banning child drivers.

A sign targeted at OHV’s (off-highway vehicles) outside the town of Tin Cup. Some people oppose the machines being allowed on town streets and others support them because of the economic boon they bring. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Taylor Park area surrounding the Taylor Park Reservoir has suffered, in the minds and ears of some campers and other recreational users, from a glut of OHVs that has made it a less desirable recreation area in recent years.

These are all problematic areas for the Gunnison County commissioners who have seen OHV use “go through the roof” in the words of Commissioner Jonathan Houck.

He said the county is seeing torn-up roads and resource damage from users “that are more interested in conquering the outdoors than in being in the outdoors.” He said the OHV problem has moved into the upper echelon of county issues, alongside a serious housing shortage and looming drought.

Trying to find workable solutions

OHV groups like the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition and Stay the Trail have worked with the state, federal land management agencies, and communities to help craft workable solutions to OHV problems. 

The groups, two of 77 OHV organizations listed in the state, are dedicated to lobbying for the interests of off-highway users, and also to disseminating educational information. They are tasked with updating maps and local rule lists to let OHV users know where they can ride.

The groups also do trail building and cleanups, and post signs and “ambassadors” on trails to help instill responsible trail use for the motorized crowd. Funding for those efforts for the next year will come from a pot of $5.9 million collected from permits and registrations. Seventy projects that include trail improvements and restoration, education and enforcement are on tap.

Scott Jones, a spokesman for the off-highway coalition, said the organization is having to wrestle with the same quandary that some local entities are: people overcrowding and abusing the outdoors because of the pandemic.

“There is a realization that the landscape is changing for Colorado,” Jones said. “There are a lot of these things out there.”

Off-highway vehicles can drive on the streets of Lake City. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are enough OHVs that they have become a more than $1.6 billion economic driver in Colorado, according to a 6-year-old study commissioned by the off-highway coalition. Only skiers spend more on their outdoor recreation. The OHV spending includes sales of the vehicles, service and equipment costs, and money spent in communities by OHVers. The motorized-recreation industry is responsible for 17,000 jobs, the study found.

 The vehicles alone can be “insanely expensive,” Jones said  ̶  upwards of $30,000 for a tricked-out Polaris RZR.

“There are good and bad users in every sport”

The popular RZRs are the latest iteration of decades of powering backcountry forays with motors.

In the 1960s, off-highway motorcycles first began creating headaches for hikers and early trail cyclists. In the 1970s, all-terrain vehicles  ̶  ATVs  ̶  established a lumbering presence on trails. The squat four-wheel-drive vehicles had transitioned to recreation from farm fields and hunters’ camps. They were the summer version of snowmobiles.

A Polaris Sportsman 550 parked in Marble on June 12, 2021. “These machines have a more adverse impact than other vehicles. They tend go faster, erode the roads … They are incredible fire hazards,” said resident Teri Havens (not pictured) said. “I guess we could wait until there’s a huge disaster and then try to figure it out — They’re a great way to get around up here. But there needs to be a noise ordinance.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Side-by-sides — a sort of dune buggy for the mountains  ̶  came along in the 1990s and, as the name implies, made it possible for two riders to sit next to each other rather than having to straddle a tractor-like seat.

In the early 2000s, the RZR and other sport vehicles brought the first hint that there would be a whole new backcountry and resort-town dynamic when it comes to OHVs.

These futuristic vehicles ratcheted up problems with their sound that has been compared to blenders, chain saws and small aircraft (up to 99 decibels are allowed in Colorado for older models and 96 decibels for newer), and their speed (the fastest top out at around 90 mph).

They have wide wheel bases, high clearance and heavy-duty shocks that enable them to go anywhere.

For some drivers, if they can, they do.

Houck shared two examples of OHV bad behavior he has witnessed. He said he was on Engineer Pass last year enjoying the scenery when he saw an OHV churning up a hillside of wildflowers. 

On another occasion, Houck saw OHVs with speakers blasting and flags flying, speeding full blast down the middle of the Slate River, an area near Crested Butte known for its wetlands and wildlife.

“There are good and bad users in every sport, but there seems to be a propensity of the latter in these side-by-side RZR users,” he said. “It made me incredibly angry that one slice of the motorized pie is giving that entire industry a black eye.”

While off-road advocacy groups and law enforcement struggle to make drivers behave responsibly, motorized users are tugged in the other direction by the off-road-vehicle manufacturers.

Polaris advertises “white-knuckle acceleration” and “G-force turns” on its new RZR XP Turbo S4  ̶  “the biggest, baddest beast the offroad has ever seen.”

Polaris videos depict RZRs kicking up huge clouds of dust as they bank turns and launch off hills.

 A 2018 ad highlights the expansive cockpit views of the RZR with the message, “You can see every last inch of terrain you’re about to destroy.”

That gives Tom Sobal, a longtime member of the Quiet Use Coalition, a headache. He lives in Salida, a town with 2,000 miles of routes open to OHVs within 100 miles of the town limits.

“This has become a political issue with the anti-government faction that rebels against the rules,” Sobal said. “There are a lot of bad apples in every group, but the nature of this OHV use magnifies the abuse in that group.”

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Sobal, like many who are trying to calm the off-road frenzy in Colorado, points west across the Utah border. Utah is one of 35 states that flip Colorado law and allow OHVs on all roads. Municipalities must vote to keep them out rather than to allow them to use roads in city limits.

Moab, which used to be known primarily for mountain biking and jeeping, has become a mecca for OHVs. They buzz around the town and its environs in high-decibel packs that some residents say would have Edward Abbey howling in his hidden desert grave.

Residents who are bailing out of the town call it “Mad Max on steroids” in a widely shared KZMU public radio audio piece, “Dispatch from the Undisputed Motorhead Capital of the West.”

From her Marble hideaway, Teri Havens doesn’t have to deal with that level of disruption. It has not reached the point where she is considering leaving her property. Yet, she is aware OHVs represent the fastest-growing recreational activity in the U.S. and that the sport has become, in her estimation, “out-of-control, unmanaged, destructive and heartbreaking.”

The other night she went out on an evening to walk her dog and soon heard a distant whine and a thumping stereo. She saw a cloud of dust rising beyond a hill.

“Here we go,” she thought as she got out of the way of what she knew was coming.


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