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Forest Service isn't planning to close road anytime soon

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— The U.S. Forest Service doesn't plan to close Elk Park Road to motorized users anytime soon, despite a misleading photo that has stoked a controversy of forest access in Strawberry Park.

Last week, Strawberry Park resident Don Johnson bought advertising space in Steamboat Today to publish a mock photo of Elk Park Road blocked by a gate with a do-not-enter sign.

Along with the doctored photo was a message to off-road vehicle enthusiasts that read: "Calling all dirt bikes, jeeps and SUV's. Use it before we lose it. This could be the last summer of fun!"

The message urged people to call the Forest Service to comment.

Johnson, who owns Strawberry Park Hot Springs, said he wanted to warn the public that the road could be closed for good.

"I was just trying to let people know who like to use (the road) that they should go up and use it," Johnson said.

The Forest Service is considering closing Elk Park Road in the future, spokeswoman Diann Pipher said. However, officials won't seriously considered that for at least another year.

"At this point, we don't have a proposal to close the road," Pipher said.

If a plan to close the road were drafted, the agency would legally have to consult with the public.

"That could be a few years down the road," Pipher said.

She explained that the Forest Service is concerned about vehicles damaging a creek in which a large section of the road is adjacent to. Officials also don't like that its access allows motorized vehicles to get right next to the protected Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

But safety concerns about Elk Park Road (also know as Elk Park Trail) is the community's issue.

For the past few years, residents of the Strawberry Park area have expressed concerns of hikers, bikers and motorized vehicles all using Elk Park Road, which is seven miles north of Steamboat Springs off County Road 36. Pipher said public concern such as this prompts the Forest Service to consider closing roads.

The road is open to public off-highway vehicles in the summer months. However, hikers and mountain bikers use the road extensively.

The first few miles of Elk Park Road cross two private residences, whose owners pay to keep the road plowed in the winter for personal access.

Joe Bier, who owns one of those residences, said the mix of off-road vehicles with hikers and bikers is a dangerous combination.

He and neighbor Chris Clifford, along with other Strawberry Park residents, have asked the county and the Forest Service to address the safety issue. However, they haven't met about the road for nearly a year, Bier estimated.

When Johnson's message ran in the newspaper, Bier and Clifford were at first a little perplexed, Bier said. Then they realized an increase of motorized visitors crossing their land, responding to Johnson's message, would occur.

"Frankly, this is absolutely the wrong way to go about this," Bier said.

Increasing the traffic on Elk Park Road would only exacerbate the safety issues there, he said.

The road has not opened for the summer. Today is the target date to open it, but Routt County Road and Bridge officials, who dictate when the road is opened, weren't available to comment on when it will. The opening date is dependent on the condition of the road.

Johnson said he thinks his neighbors have gone the wrong way in trying to get the road closed. He said he suspects the private landowners want the road closed for personal reasons rather than for safety or environmental concerns. He hasn't been consulted and neither have any of the motorized vehicle users who enjoy the access Elk Park Road offers to the forest.

"I think at some point if they are supposed to be neighborly, they should be," Johnson said.

Bier said Johnson is the one not being neighborly. Johnson's interests may lie in access issues, but they also could be connected to assuring access to his business, he said.

Plus, the message in the newspaper could "terrorize" the the area with an increase of motor vehicle users, which is something Bier, Clifford and some of their neighbors believe will become dangerous to hikers and bikers.

"I can absolutely understand their concerns about the road being closed," Bier said.

However, the safety of the road should be considered, he said.

Johnson, Bier and Clifford have never sat down to discuss their differences in the management of Elk Park Road.

"It's an awkward situation up here and we don't know how it's going to turn out," Bier said.

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