Roads,Trails and Bulldozers

Post by blogger | July 18, 2008      

If you enjoy Colorado’s network of backcountry roads (or primitive tracks anywhere in the U.S.), watch out for bulldozers “improving” them. Just last summer we headed for one of our popular local 4×4, ATV and mountain bike trails (Schofield Pass) and found it graded into submission by USFS funded heavy machinery. Thankfully rains and washouts reversed the grading after just a few months. Any way you look at it, a waste.

The insanity continues, this time with major carnage on roads south of here near Ouray, Colorado.

According to a recent news report, “San Juan 4×4 trail Corkscrew Gulch is finally open, if temporarily, after a long wait for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. The Ouray County Road and Bridge Department will begin work later this month to reverse damage done to the road by the U.S. Forest Service last summer.”

During my decades here in Colorado, I’ve seen this sort of thing play out all over the state. Unlike the case of Corkscrew Gulch, nearby locals often shrug their shoulders, as sometimes the “improvements” do make their lives easier by smoothing access to remote homes, hunting locals and such. But those same improvements destroy or greatly alter what has become a major part of our recreational heritage; that of rough challenging backcountry roadways. And the “improvements” may attract more people.

If the USFS is constantly under funded as so many claim, where is the logic in doing unnecessary road work, which in turn possibly attracts more users who require funds to manage?

More, I’ve heard it said that any funding shortfall in a U.S. Government agency is usually a matter of allocation rather than real need. I’m not sure where the USFS is in that equation, but they could certainly take much of their backcountry machinery money and use it for timber management, improvements to main roads, or a few more Wilderness rangers (to name some needs that seem more pressing than randomly moving dirt on a jeep trail.)

According to the article cited above, officials say at least some of the work is done to prevent erosion and resulting stream sedimentation. Sure, some need for water bars and erosion fixes is obvious. But where is the data that shows most of the trails in question make less sediment after being graded and modified? In my view, it’s frequently the opposite.

Simple field observations easily show that many trails evolve to an ideal surface that looks aesthetically primitive, is fun for recreators using the average 4×4, mountain bike, motorcycle or ATV, and obviously produces little silt. When grading is attempted on these surfaces, the fill simply washes out or is pounded away by traffic.

Granted, portions of some trails need upkeep or they could deteriorate to the point of being impassable even for foot travel (especially in the case of shelf roads built on glacial till rather than blasted out of bedrock). For example, a section of a popular trail near here was taken out by a mudslide this spring, and needed major repair (which was completed quite nicely, thanks USFS). But most of these trails have been in use for over 100 years, they tend to stay open and passable without much official intervention, and nearby streams are doing fine.

When I pen these rants, government employees frequently point out that they’re “just doing their job as required by various laws and regulations.” I’m sure that’s so in some scenarios. But in the case of backcountry road work, much is obviously done at the discretion of various officials. Take your money and run — that’s all I’m asking.

Comments anyone? You want your tax money smoothing those trails, or you want them ready to test your mountain bike skills?


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11 Responses to “Roads,Trails and Bulldozers”

  1. Jay J July 18th, 2008 10:51 am

    I “HATE” to play devils Advocate, but the employees of the USFS are correct to some degree. The $$$$ isn’t there for all that is needed and so, the projects they are ORDERED to do comes down from on the Political High. Instead of looking at Priority Needs (these can be manipulated too), the $$$ goes is sent to high profile and poltically expediant areas that get CERTAIN people what THEY want and NOT what is truely needed. I’m sure we’ve ALL had a boss that is a total butthead (I’m talking about the BIG bosses in DC) and who pretty much does the wrong thing, all the time.
    So, the In-field worksers, who we see, get the flack, for doing their jobs and they don’t dare report the public commenst to their Overlords – if they want to continue working. Sound familar?
    As I said – I hate this AS much as the next person, but as long as DC and selfish Regional Directors are left to their devices – THIS is the WAY!! It isn’t impossible to change – but damned near!!

  2. Lou July 18th, 2008 11:04 am

    Indeed Jay, as far as I know most USFS employees are trying to do the best job they can, though I’m sure there are exceptions as in any outfit. All or most of my crit is of course directed at the entity and those who control the decisions, in this case about where/when to do backcountry road work.

    And yeah, it sounds almost impossible to change. It’s almost like the directive to do this road work is programmed into some kind of big black book somewhere, and the tome is only cracked by contractors who need road work, then they just send in an invoice and it’s rubber stamped. Much of the work looks so illogical that one has to assume that somehow the people who can make smart choices are being bypassed. Or else they’re just buying diesel for these guys and setting them loose with vague instructions.

  3. Dongshow July 18th, 2008 1:09 pm

    I’d guess it goes something like this. The Forest Service get’s a budget for road work, but doesn’t have the money to study which roads actually need work. If they don’t use the alloted money, they’ll get less the following year as their failure to use the money ‘proves’ they don’t need it. So the best thing to do, from an agency perspective is send someone out with a grader, use everything their given, and beg for more.

  4. Lou July 18th, 2008 1:16 pm

    Dongshow, it could very well be something like that. As they say, follow the money for answers. Some USFS folk read this, perhaps they’ll chime in and let us know how the money flow works.

  5. EZE July 18th, 2008 1:42 pm

    Funny thing…I just saw this article. Apparently around here folks do want the FS to take the lead.

  6. Lou July 18th, 2008 2:12 pm

    EZE, I guess we’ll have to get up there and enjoy that road before they fix it (though probably best on a weekend).

  7. Toby July 18th, 2008 2:52 pm

    Cool link EZE. Living in Denver I have been up that road quite a few times. What comes to mind is the idea that when you live in a rural or out of the way area don’t you need to assume some greater risk and cost for things like services and access to your own property? The sheriff in the article comments on the need for access for emergencies. But by that logic how many more roads in high mountain areas are going to need repair? It isn’t practical and this whole issue seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

  8. Lou July 18th, 2008 3:04 pm

    Funny how officials play the rescue/emergency card when it comes to this stuff. What a joke. Rescue guys are mad dogs with their ATVs and 4x4s. A moderately rough road like that is nothing to them, in fact, most of the SAR guys I know love it.

  9. Jeff Prillwitz July 21st, 2008 8:58 am

    What is really at play here is the bigoted mindset that anybody who engages in motorized recreation is “too lazy to walk.” Following that logic the forest service believes that the “improvements” actually help and are wanted. Several years ago I had a conversation with a member of the Colorado Mountain Club. The CMC wanted to help the forest service “improve” a trail and he just couldn’t understand why off-road motorcyclists wanted the trail to stay the way it was, difficult with rocks etc. Erosion control wasn’t an issue. The CMC wanted to make the trail easier and it was beyond their closed minded understanding as to why a so-called lazy dirt biker would want it to remain difficult.

  10. Tony July 21st, 2008 12:03 pm

    In some areas it has been a preemptive move against any new roadless designation/legislation. They can then justify leaving the “road” open, or resist any new wilderness classification by pointing to the “road” that already exists. I think they bulldozed a bunch of so-called roads in Utah when the new roadless rules under Clinton were about to take affect.

  11. Randonnee July 21st, 2008 1:30 pm


    “I think they bulldozed a bunch of so-called roads in Utah when the new roadless rules under Clinton were about to take affect. ”

    Very possible, Tony.

    In my home area, one of the Proposed Roadless Areas during the Clintoon land grab has well-used and maintained roads. I drive or snowmobile those roads regularly. Fortunately, that area was left out of the Roadless Area anti-human use land grab…

    Ethics, facts, reason…all fade away from Bureaucracy.

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