Steamboat Springs The U.S. Forest Service says it will step up enforcement and perhaps limit access to prevent snowmobilers from trekking into wilderness areas and prohibited zones on Rabbit Ears Pass.
The Forest Service has seen an increase in snowmobilers tracking up wilderness areas, including the Mount Zirkel Wilderness just east of Steamboat Springs. And there has also been a rise in snowmobilers traveling through areas of Rabbit Ears Pass reserved for skiers and snowshoers.
"This has been a problem for many years," said Jon Halverson, wilderness manager for the Hahns Peak/Bear Ears Ranger District. "But it seems to be getting worse.
"People are taking snowmobiles where they don't belong."
For the first issue, the Forest Service has the ability to write tickets to snowmobilers venturing into wilderness areas.
Rabbit Ears Pass is not as easy to address because the nonmotorized areas are not formal closures. Snowmobilers are asked to cooperate and not enter those areas but do not face penalties for not complying.
"We have been trying to educate snowmobilers with maps and signs," Halverson said. "The signs are very evident, and people are riding right by."
Wilderness areas are closed to all motorized access and land uses are limited.
Because of the number of snowmobiles entering the Mount Zirkel and Sarvis Creek wilderness areas this winter, officials are stepping up patrol efforts.
"We have been able to catch some people lately," Halverson said.
In the past three weeks, three people have been caught on snowmobiles in wilderness areas, Halverson said.
A snowmobiler cited for trespassing in the wilderness faces six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The designated area for snowmobilers on Rabbit Ears Pass is the east side of the pass. The west side of the pass is designated for nonmotorized recreational activities, skiing and snowshoeing.
The designations were developed in an agreement by the Routt Winter Task Force, which consists of representatives from various ski and snowmobile groups.
Officials believe a small percentage of snowmobilers are ignoring the boundaries.
"They are undermining the effort," said Ed Patalik, Forest Service recreation planner. "By not cooperating, it leads to more problems and could eventually lead to more regulations."
The Forest Service does not want to impose enforceable regulations, which would probably result in a fee.
"Folks must recognize that everyone needs a place to pursue their own form of recreation," Patalik said. "We have to maintain a balance between motorized and nonmotorized uses. We don't want to have to resort to legal closures in these areas, but if people won't support the hard work the task force has put into this and respect these boundaries, we may be left with little choice."
Halverson said there have been more problems this winter because snowmobiling is becoming more popular and bringing more people into this area.
"Everyone is vying for a limited resource," Halverson said. "There is only so much backcountry out there, but everyone wants to play in the powder."
Halverson fears snowmobilers will continue to try to enter wilderness areas because of the technological improvements made to snowmobiles each year.
"Snowmobiles can now go places where they couldn't before," he said.
A local snowmobile club, Routt Powder Riders, is working with Forest Service officials to get the message out that snowmobilers need to stay out of wilderness areas and designated areas on Rabbit Ears Pass.
The Forest Service and the club have maps and information about areas appropriate for snowmobiling.
"The more information we have out there, the better cooperation we are hoping to get," Halverson said.