Mexican Owls Haunt ATV Riders

In the latest environmental showdown in the high country, the Mexican Owls have trumped ATV (all-terrain vehicle) motorists, according to a recent court verdict.

As a result, the Forest Service must shut or down or partially close 147 roads, encompassing at least 18 miles, for motorized vehicles that run through six ranger districts in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. This will ultimately impact many roads used by ATV buffs in the region.

This is part of a settlement agreement reached by the U.S. District Court, following a year-long lawsuit.

The road shutdowns will preserve habitats for the Mexican spotted owl and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, which are both considered threatened species. The Mexican spotted owls have caused many headaches for proponents of big projects in Teller County, including a major power line route that was constructed in the 1990s.

But this verdict represents a big blow for recreation and ATV buffs in Teller County, as this settlement is the first stage of a long-term road shutdown in national forest areas. The U.S. Forest Service must revaluate 500 miles of roadway that cuts through endangered species’ habitats.

The decision culminates a showdown between the Forest Service and several environmental groups. Environmental leaders contend that the Forest Service added many roads without doing necessary assessments. “The settlement stops the Forest Service from just adding routes willy-nilly without doing the necessary study, without looking before they leap,” sadi Ted Zukoski, a lawyer with Earthjustice, which represented the environmental groups, according to a report in The (Colorado Springs) Gazette.

These closures will seriously impact routes in the Pike, Leadville, San Carlos South Park South Platte and Salida ranges.
The decision is bound to generate much opposition from local leaders who have lobbied hard for opening up more access routes in the national forest to ATV users.

But environmental leaders say this decision will require the Forest Service to do more assessments to protect endangered habitats, as well as the winter ranges for elk, deer and other big game. They also hope the decision will allow the public to get involved more and have a larger say in determining how the forest of the future will be used.

Motorized access through parts of the Pike National Forest, which is heavily used by recreation users in the local area and by tourists, has always sparked much controversy and heated debate.