Steamboat Springs U.S. Forest Service officials hope four-wheel-drive enthusiasts can contain themselves when they come across closed gates guarding muddy roads.
Though the snow has melted rapidly on numerous seasonal roads in the Routt National Forest and the roads may look clear enough for travel, four-wheeling this time of year can cause extensive damage the public eventually pays for monetarily and environmentally.
"It could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to repair," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
Officials are weary of a few scenarios that often occur when drivers bypass gates, she said.
First, to get around a closed gate means driving off the road, which causes considerable damage and increases erosion on soils around the road. Plus, though a road may look clear of snow, that's not always the case a few miles from the gate. Drivers encountering snow steer off the road to bypass drifts or get stuck. The latter can lead to police involvement and up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Pipher said drivers ignoring gates is an annual problem this time of year.
The gates also are closed to protect wildlife because spring is a sensitive time of the year for some animals.
Elk, which follow the snowmelt into higher elevations near the roads, are beginning to calve. If disturbed, cows may leave their calves unattended, making the newborns vulnerable to predators.
"The elk don't need a lot of traffic disturbing them, which burns their energy," Pipher added.
Colton Creek is one key area for elk calving, she said. Any road around recent snowmelt can be significant elk habitat this time of the year.
Sharp-tailed grouse and sand-hill cranes also nest in the springtime and need a peaceful atmosphere.
Roads in California Park, northeast of Hayden, are closed for these birds.
Most of the Forest Service roads will open up in late spring or early summer.
Highly used access roads, such as Forest Service Road 60 over Buffalo Pass and the eastern sections of Seed House Road east of Clark, will open when they are dry enough to travel on. That's usually is around July, but it may be earlier this year.
"For the last few years we've had less snow," Pipher said. "So it might be a little early this year."