“Don’t go off the road—period”
The Colorado State Assembly passed a measure on February 29 aimed at discouraging illegal off-road activity, despite concerns the bill unfairly targets the recreational vehicle community.
House Bill 1069, drafted by State Representative Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison), cleared the Colorado House of Representatives on February 21 and was passed with amendments by the Colorado State Senate on February 27. The amended version was considered on February 29 by the House, which voted to concur with the Senate’s amendments.
“We need to act now to minimize the damage caused by the few users of public land that ignore restrictions on off-road vehicle use,” Curry said in a January press release.
According to Curry’s office, the bill will help curb off-highway vehicle (OHV) violations by prohibiting the vehicles from using public lands, trails, or roads unless such use is authorized by a sign or other means. The legislation would give authority to various law enforcement officials—state patrol officers, sheriffs, marshals, Department of Wildlife officials and others—to enforce the provisions and distribute violation tickets.
“We need to protect the long-term use of Colorado’s public lands without diminishing the quality of the recreational experiences we all cherish in this state,” Curry said. “I’m proud to say that we worked long and hard to create legislation that will provide a long-term solution for using public land in a more sustainable way while recognizing the stewardship ethic that already exists.”
The legislation also creates state penalties in addition to federal penalties for anyone found guilty of violating closed areas and trails. A violation would be a misdemeanor with a $100 fine. People who violate the law while hunting, fishing, trapping would also have 10 suspension points applied to their licenses. Violations in designated wilderness areas would carry a $200 fine and 15 license suspension points.
According to Curry’s office, enforcement will be incidental: When an officer happens upon a violation, he can enforce the law. Enforcement will not increase the workload of state officers.
Opponents argue it’s wrong to use state funds to enforce laws for the federal government.
“We’re spending state tax dollars to enforce a federal regulation,” Representative Ray Rose (R-Montrose) said in a Denver Post article on January 29. “This is not a privilege, this is a right to use your land, and it’s being turned into a privilege.”
However, the bill has received the backing of a diverse range of outdoor interest groups—including some OHV advocates. The Western Slope ATV Association, the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and the Colorado Snowmobile Association have all signed on in support of the bill.
“I don’t see anything wrong with (the bill) as far as keeping people out of the wilderness area, said Western Slope ATV Association president Steve Chapel. “It’s probably a good tool.”
The bill was amended to allow exemptions for ranchers and others with permits for access to federal land.
Jim Dawson, Forest Service district ranger, says although the Forest Service cannot comment on whether it supports the pending legislation, the agency could possibly help with enforcement.
“I believe it would serve to complement our proposals for travel management, but it’s hard to say what impact the bill will have,” Dawson says. “It would give us more eyes and ears on the ground and that’s what we need.”
Dawson says the legislation would authorize law enforcement officials to give tickets for the state law and the federal law to violators, although he says receiving both would be unlikely.
Enforcement has always been a priority for the Forest Service, according to southwest Forest Service patrol captain Dan Neilsen, who notes that during 2007 Forest Service officers gave 67 tickets in the Gunnison Forest for off-road and off-trail violations.
In addition, they issued 131 tickets for offenses related to off-highway vehicles, including operating in violation of state law, operating on a state or county road, or registration issues. The federal ticket is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum penalty of $5,000 and/or six months in jail.
Neilsen says the number of violations has increased significantly over the past five years, due to the growing state population and the number of tourists visiting the area.
“Everyone wants to go to the Wild West and have a good time, so it’s a popular destination for tourism,” Neilsen explains.
Off-highway vehicle use across the country has grown in general from 5 million users in 1972 to 51 million in 2005. In Colorado, there are 133,000 off-highway vehicle registrations—double the number five years ago.
Neilsen says the incredible proliferation of illegal and social OHV trails, accidentally or purposefully cut into national forest lands, is creating a nightmare situation of soil erosion, invasive species and wildlife harassment.
He says the department has also seen more conflicts between user groups, especially during the hunting season when OHV users travel in undesignated areas, thus disturbing the peace and/or moving animals out of an area.
The bill now awaits Colorado Governor Bill Ritter’s signature before becoming law.