San Juan County’s sheriff is cracking down on illegal off-roading in the high country around Silverton.
“If you can’t properly use your toys in San Juan County, we’re going to take your toys away from you and put you in time-out,” Sheriff Bruce Conrad said.
Last week, authorities in the small mountain town, about an hour’s drive north of Durango, received a report that two people were driving ATVs off-road, tearing up the fragile alpine meadows in the Corkscrew Gulch/Hurricane Pass area.
A Silverton resident spotted the group and took video, Conrad said. The drivers of the ATVs confronted the Silverton man and a verbal altercation ensued.
The Sheriff’s Office made contact with the ATVers as they headed back into town, Conrad said, and then confiscated their vehicles. He said the case is being prosecuted federally and was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management.
Conrad said the drivers were from Texas, but he declined to release their names, saying in the past, people who have been identified damaging the high country have received death threats.
He said the men claimed there were no signs and they didn’t know they couldn’t drive off-road.
“You shouldn’t need a sign telling you not to go somewhere,” Conrad said. “If it’s not obviously a road, you don’t belong there.”
The incident is the first illegal off-road case authorities have been able to catch this year, but it is indicative of the Sheriff’s Office’s resolve to pursue stricter punishments for vehicles that damage the alpine tundra, Conrad said.
The Sheriff’s Office last year instituted a protocol to confiscate off-road vehicles suspected of damaging the high country. Deputies collect all the evidence and photos of the damage and turn the information over to the federal agency that manages the land, such as the BLM or U.S. Forest Service.
The federal agent in charge of the area then decides whether any fine or restitution is warranted, Conrad said. Restitution to repair damage can be tens of thousands of dollars, he said.
Kate Miyamoto, a spokeswoman with the BLM, said the agency has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal off-roading and tickets are issued to those caught. But, she said a BLM law enforcement officer can’t be everywhere in the vast backcountry.
“We work closely with the sheriff and provide funds through an agreement to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department to patrol BLM-managed public lands,” she said. “Partnerships with local sheriff’s departments allow officers closer to the scene to quickly respond. The BLM Gunnison Field Office is pursuing opportunities to expand these types of partnerships in other counties.”
A representative with the Forest Service did not return a request seeking comment Thursday.
Conrad said the Sheriff’s Office won’t release the vehicles until ordered to do so by a federal magistrate judge.
Last year, the Sheriff’s Office dealt with three “egregious” incidents of off-road vehicles damaging the high country, as well as several other smaller instances.
He said the culprits are typically from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, but in recent years, more people are coming from places like Alabama, Arkansas and Minnesota, “where the rules are apparently much different,” he said.
The town of Silverton opened some streets to ATV use in spring 2014, which has drawn more visitors each year. With a growing number of ATVers visiting Silverton, illegal off-road rides that damage mountain terrain are becoming more common.
The backcountry around Silverton has been accessible only in the past week or so because of heavy snowpack last winter, so activity is picking up. Conrad said he wants to get the message out now that going off-road won’t be tolerated.