During mid-March, somebody on a snowmobile moved markers on the Hogan Park Trail to lead cross country skiers and snowshoers off the marked route.
U.S. Forest Service officials are investigating the vandalism and are telling the public about the danger of such actions.
"It's a dangerous situation," said Jon Halverson, wilderness ranger for the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District.
"Any time you're not going where you think you're going, it's potentially dangerous. Certainly you can retrace your steps if you know you're lost, but people could conceivably get ... away and not even know they are lost."
The Hogan Park Trail, which runs about eight miles from the top of Rabbit Ears Pass to the Steamboat Ski Area, is marked with blue diamonds that are posted on trees or on bamboo poles.
At a meadow 1 1/2 miles into the trail, bamboo poles were moved to lead people in a different direction. Someone also upended "No Snowmobiles" signs marking the nonmotorized area boundary, Halverson said.
U.S. Forest Service officials discovered the vandalism March 20 and could tell by tracks and other evidence that it was done by someone on a snowmobile. They received no complaints from users who got lost.
Officials are asking residents to come forward with any information they have. Such vandalism could be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.
A similar instance happened three years ago but seemed like it had a different intent, Halverson said.
This vandalism comes as Routt National Forest workers are working on winter recreation analyses of Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes, which have sparked controversy from snowmobilers who do not want to stay out of nonmotorized areas and from skiers who want more areas designated for nonmotorized use.
"Recognizing that this is a time when emotions are running kind of high just because of the winter recreation analysis on the Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Pass areas, it's especially disappointing and frustrating that somebody chose to do this now," Halverson said.
"We've been hoping for and trying to get cooperation among the various user groups. ... (This vandalism) is somebody sticking a stake in the heart of it."
In related business, several snowmobilers recently were fined for snowmobiling in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area off Buffalo Pass.
Michael Antalek, Erin McMillan and Karl Jeckel, all of the Steamboat Springs and Hayden area, were cited for riding snowmobiles in the wilderness area Dec. 20, 2003. On March 16, Antalek and McMillan were fined $150 each, and Jeckel was fined $200, by a U.S. Magistrate in Grand Junction, Halverson said.
A court date is set for cases involving two other individuals involved in a separate incident in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Last year, there were about 150 violations in the area, Halverson said.
"You don't have to pick the wilderness," he said. "There are hundreds of miles of groomed trails and hundreds and thousands of acres where it's perfectly fine, you just don't have to pick the wilderness."
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