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Colorado Springs off-highway vehicle enthusiasts want bigger share of public lands

April 17, 2017 Updated: April 18, 2017 at 11:29 am
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Mark and Evan Turner (right to left) take to the backroads on the weekends for family bonding on dirt bikes. The local OHV scene is growing, as evidenced by a recent economic study. The Turners were riding on Gold Camp Road on Sunday, March 19, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

It's a Sunday morning like any other at North Cheyenne Cañon Park's highest lot, overflowing with hikers and mountain bikers. But the Turners are easy to find.

They are the only ones with dirt bikes.

"I really like having activities I can do with my kids, and this is one I'll probably be able to keep up with for a while," says Michael Turner, a Colorado Springs dermatologist who during past winter weekends struggled to keep up on the ski slopes with sons Evan, 14, and Mark, 13.

Heading into the spring and summer, the trio is swapping the snow for the dirt, over which they'll zoom. In the middle of North Cheyenne Cañon's bustle, they unload the bikes from the Toyota pickup: the Kawasaki, the KTM, the Honda. They strap on their boots and helmets.

And off they go on the wide path into the wilderness, the roar of their motors drowning out the bird songs and silence, leaving all behind them in clouds of dust: some alarmed dogs, some parents nudging their children closer.

Back at the lot, mountain biker Charles Gerchow is glad to be taking another path, High Drive, which has long been closed to motorists. "They were tearing it up," he says.

"They need a place, I get that, they deserve a place," he continues. "But I make a point to stay away from them."

It is a double threat to off-highway vehicle enthusiasts - this anti sentiment among nonmotorists and limitations to access. Along with disrupters of peace, OHVs are deemed environmental hazards.

"Colorado Springs really doesn't provide that opportunity," says David Deitemeyer, the park planner who explains the city's recreation areas are too "densely populated" for motorists. "The potential for conflict between motorists and nonmotorists could be significant," he says.

Struggle for access

Within the city's park system, dirtbikers like the Turners have only this path from North Cheyenne Cañon to use - this road under the U.S. Forest Service. High Drive, formerly a favorite among local motorists, was reclassified in 2016 for administrative vehicles only, and that classification is not expected to change.

The road was initially closed three years ago due to flood damage. During that time the Forest Service began the planning process to protect the endangered greenback cutthroat trout in the Bear Creek drainage - a process that also led to the motorized ban of another favorite.

Trail reroutes in the mountainous area known as Jones Park are expected to be finished later this summer. After that, motorists anticipate returning to the area after a four-year wait. This is to the great pleasure of Jim Bensberg.

A lifelong Colorado Springs resident and president of the Colorado Motorcycle Trail Riders Association, Bensberg and other advocates hope local land managers consider a recent study that explored the economic impact of OHV recreation. The study, commissioned by the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, found that enthusiasts spend $2.3 billion annually toward recreating in the state.

"I think there's an inherent bias toward nonmotorized recreation," Bensberg says. "It's difficult getting people to appreciate this."

Membership in his association has long been stagnant, he says. Maybe cost is a barrier; breaking into the recreation can be pricey with the purchase of a motorbike, no less an all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile.

He and other advocates say interest would grow with better access.

"Most opportunities, especially in Colorado, are not close to where people live," says Scott Jones with the Colorado OHV Coalition. He says he drives over an hour from his Longmont home for playtime.

"A lot of focus is on putting hiking and biking trails within 10 minutes of homes," he says, referencing a goal stated by Gov. John Hickenlooper. "We don't seem to get that kind of interest for motorized opportunities."

For motorists here, a prime opportunity awaits past Woodland Park and Divide. The trail network known as "the Gulches" has become an OHV destination since the Forest Service granted an easement to Teller County in 2009. Jerry Panek, owner of a four-wheel-drive parts and repair shop in Colorado Springs, continues to spearhead volunteer maintenance of the multiuse area, which was previously closed to motorists.

He describes himself as "cynical" toward the Forest Service, having observed what he perceives as the agency's efforts to limit access "as an easy way to stretch their budgets." It is also a court mandate within the Pike and San Isabel National Forests: Access to some 500 miles of roads is being considered in the wake of a lawsuit by environmentalists who claimed motorists posed a threat to wildlife habitats and streams.

A spokesperson previously told The Gazette the Forest Service would spend over five years, through 2020, studying areas. Attempts to reach the Forest Service were unsuccessful.

Deitemeyer sees how allowing motorized access "could accelerate damage" to city trails and open spaces.

Riding for the feeling

"The Gulches" offers the kind of opportunity that, by Panek's view, has become rare over his 40 years in the area. "This area used to be what you'd call an open area," he says. "You could drive just about wherever you wanted."

Sitting beside the gate closing off High Drive, Bensberg looks at the hills where as a teen in the 1970s he learned to ride a motorbike. He and the Turners have finished their ride. Through a thinning path near the parking lot, young Evan Turner comes to a stop, letting hikers and mountain bikers pass.

"They were really good to us today, right?" Bensberg says. "Nobody growled at us!"

The ride saw them rumble up and down patches of rocks - the kind of challenging terrain they prefer. The desired experience is not so unlike that of a mountain biker, explains Evan, who rides for Cheyenne Mountain High School's mountain biking team. And not so unlike any hiker, he rides his dirt bike to find scenery.

"It's beautiful," he says, "when you can get to places where nobody else is."

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