Sage Hen area on the endangered list?Forest Service imposes closures to fight rampant vandalism, littering
By Gail Binkly
Sprawling graffiti painted over an outhouse. A toilet-paper-holder ripped from a wall. Broken windows and vandalized signs. Wooden pallets dumped around a parking area. Abandoned vehicles. Truckfuls of trash.
These unsightly messes and other recurring problems have prompted the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest to limit activities in the popular Sage Hen Area on the west side of McPhee Reservoir.
The area is now closed to night-time use. In addition, motorized access has been restricted.
Now, short of staff and money to deal with such problems, the Forest Service is looking for citizens to help work on a management plan for the area.
“We’re trying really hard to maintain an on-the-ground presence at Sage Hen,” said Steve Beverlin, manager of the Dolores Public Lands Office. “But we’re also asking the public for help. Otherwise we’ll just end up closing campgrounds and closing areas totally, and we don’t want to do that.”
Problems with off-road vehicle use, littering and vandalism are nothing new at Sage Hen. Forest Service officials first tried closing the area north of County Road X to off-road use back in the eaerly 1990s. Later, they designated specific routes and said if the ground was too wet and muddy they would close a gate to stop all motor-vehicle travel.
New restrictions at Sage Hen
The Sage Hen area south of Montezuma County Road X in sections 35 and 36 is now restricted to day use only, meaning that no overnight camping is allowed. (This area also remains closed to big-game hunting by an earlier closure order.)
The Sage Hen area north of County Road X is closed to all motorized use, including on Forest Roads 500, 500A, 500B, and 500C, as identified on the San Juan National Forest map. This is due to unacceptable vehicle damage both on and off roads covered by another earlier closure order.
However, officials rarely ended up closing the gate, and off-road driving became excessive, Beverlin said. “Plus the parties and littering, burning trash, abandoned vehicles, shooting guns all over — the unauthorized uses got too much and we couldn’t control them.” The agency issued an order forbidding big-game hunting in the area and cut the number of consecutive days campers were allowed to stay from 14 to seven.
Still, the problems continued. So far in 2006, forest officials have issued approximately 800 citations in the Dolores District, according to Beverlin. More than half were at Sage Hen.
“That opened my eyes,” he said. “I thought, ‘Instead of closing the entire area, what can we do? Let’s limit it to day use and in the meantime we can talk to folks’.”
Of particular concern is the fact that Sage Hen contains many ancient artifacts and archaeological sites. “It’s one of the highest-density archaeologicalresource areas in the United States,” Beverlin said. “That’s really critical. If these resources disappear, they’re lost forever.”
In addition, there are concerns about damage caused by people driving all over the terrain, ignoring roads. “The soil is pretty erosive,” he said, “so any tracks off-road cause problems, and when it rains you get erosion. Then people scoot over and drive next to the eroded road and create another road, and you get two, three, even four in a row. That’s pretty hard for us to manage.”
Managing the 601,000-acre Dolores District in general is becoming more difficult as it, like other districts within the San Juan National Forest, faces budget cuts and possible staff reductions. The district has one full-time law enforcement officer, plus six forest protection officers with limited enforcement authority who can issue some citations. “They’re dual-hatted people,” Beverlin said. “They’re recreation technicians, range technicials, trails people. Law enforcement is not their main duty. They help with the Fourth of July, Labor Day weekends, big events like that.”
The number isn’t a lot to enforce regulations on the district, which has more “open” areas — those where cross-country motorized travel is currently permitted — than either of the other two districts on the San Juan National Forest.