All-Terrain-Vehicle users prefer Imogene Pass and dirt bikers favor Black Bear Pass, with 14 percent of users of Imogene Pass traveling via ATV and 20 percent of users on Black Bear Pass on dirt bikes.
Generally, Ophir Pass sees the most traffic overall, especially since it opens earlier in the summer than the other two passes, and Black Bear Pass has the least traffic: findings that may not be surprising considering that Ophir Pass is by far the easiest of the three roads to navigate, while Black Bear Pass is the most dangerous.
Despite the mix of users, fully 90 percent of them say they have had a positive experience on the pass roads, with only ten percent complaining about noise or speed from ATVs or dirt bikes.
U.S. Forest Service Ranger Kathy Peckham, the recreation planner for the Norwood District, presented the information gleaned from surveys conducted on the three roads in the last two summers to a meeting of the San Miguel County Commissioners on Wednesday, with a full audience mostly off-highway vehicle enthusiasts in attendance. The surveys were conducted following an emotional debate three years ago about the impact of All Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs, and dirt bikes (collectively, off-highway vehicles, or OHVs); whether those uses should be more strictly regulated; and if so, by whom.
Both opponents and proponents of OHV use have lobbied hard for their position strictly regulate them, says one side; permit them to be used responsibly, says the other with the issue complicated by jurisdictional questions over who has the authority to regulate the roads, San Miguel County or the Forest Service. The issue is further complicated because Colorado law does not require OHVs to be licensed and by the fact that unlicensed vehicles are not permitted to operate on the streets of Telluride or Ophir.
Conducting the survey was one portion of the agreement hammered out to help manage the roads.
The surveys were designed, Peckham said, to determine how much use the pass roads are receiving, and whether there is a problem with noise and speed or with resource damage from OHVs.
In addition to concern about the impacts of noise from OHVs on other users, citizens in the last few years have argued that ATVs and dirt bikes damage the land.
Indeed, the Forest Service survey found damage from vehicles that drive off-road in a number of areas, Peckham reported. Gates limiting traffic on side roads have helped, she added. More signs may also help prevent new damage.
Peckham completed her presentation with recommendations, including cooperative management of the pass roads involving all three of the affected counties and both of the affected national forests; continued surveying on both sides of all three passes; the installation of more signs notifying motorized traffic to stay on designated roads and cautioning off-highway vehicle drivers that unlicensed vehicles are not permitted in the towns of Telluride or Ophir; the installation of educational kiosks; and the production of a brochure to educate users about noise and speed impacts.
"We'll continue to query the public about their recreational experience," Peckham said. Without saying so explicitly, the implication of the presentation was that a ninety percent positive response from users indicates that the roads are being managed with a degree of success, while the ongoing surveys will enable refinements where needed.
There is as yet no plan by the Forest Service to attempt greater regulation of impacts like noise, Peckham said, other than continued monitoring and education.
Members of the public asked Peckham's superior, Norwood District Forest Ranger Judy Schutza, about the status of a proposed new bypass road linking Black Bear Pass to Imogene Pass through Marshall Basin. The proposed bypass, mostly on land outside the county's high country zone district where road development is strictly restricted, would allow OHVs to start and end their trips in San Juan and Ouray counties without having to pass through the town of Telluride, where they are prohibited.
The Forest Service does not have the staff or financial resources to take the project thorough the National Environmental Policy Act process or to construct it, Schutza said.
"We are stretched so thin we can't meet our targets," Schutza said.
But members of the OHV community said they would gladly raise money to advance the project.
"It sounds like we need to get a group of people together to discuss how we can make this happen," County Commissioner Elaine Fischer said.