U.S. Forest Service officials have a message for snowmobilers who operate their machines on less than 12 inches of snow: Not only can it cause serious environmental damage, it is illegal and can warrant stiff fines and jail sentences.
Snowmobilers caught snowmobiling on any national forest land where there is not 12 or more inches of snow face as many as 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. They also may be required to repair any environmental damage.
Warm weather has left most of the trails on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass unridable, Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said Thursday.
"It's melting off pretty quickly. It's pretty patchy up there," she said. "It's about time to put the snowmobiles away and get out your bikes and hiking boots."
Ritschard said having one or two snowmobiles cross a streambed probably wouldn't cause catastrophic damage. But Forest Service officials are concerned that other riders will think riding in streams is OK if they see others doing it.
"The Routt National Forest belongs to all of us. We all like it. We all use it. We all need to help take care of it like it's your own backyard, because it is our backyard," she said.
Riding in or across streambeds can kill organisms that live in the streams and can cause the banks to erode, Ritschard said.
"When a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle rides over a streambed, it degrades the bank and causes soil to go into the stream. If this happens repeatedly it can cause sedimentation," she said.
People may not know about the microscopic organisms that are being damaged, she said.
"A lot of little creatures live in the streams. They might get squashed, which is bad because they are very important to a balanced ecosystem," she said. "Everything is connected."
As more people begin using national forest lands this summer, Ritschard hopes everyone realizes how important it is to preserve the county's forests.
"Everyone plays a part. From picking up garbage to educating those who might not know the rules," she said. "We all need to take care of it."