Alpine Ranger Program Shifts Allegiances, Realigns Patrols of High-Country

05/08/14 | By | More

WESTERN SAN JUANS – For the past decade or so, San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale and Ouray counties have cooperated to fund a modest Alpine Ranger Program, sending two so-called “Alpine Rangers” into the backcountry each summer as ambassadors (and pseudo law enforcement officers) to the burgeoning crowds of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) users.

More than anything, the Alpine Rangers keep an eye on OHV users in the rugged high country, making sure they stay on designated roads, offering directions, advice, and occasionally even first aid or a siphoned tank of gas.

All in all, in the face of increasing recreational use of the unique and sensitive landscapes of the high country, it has been a very successful (and much-needed) program. But this summer, due to shifts in funding and alliances, and philosophical divides as precipitous as the steep slopes of the mountains separating the counties, the Alpine Ranger Program will take a different form.

In the past, two Rangers have divvied up their territory into east and west sections of terrain. Thomas Reyburn, the “eastern” ranger (employed seasonally by the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office), focused on the Alpine Loop in San Juan and Hinsdale counties, and was funded through a patchwork of sources, including $5,000 from each of the two counties, $2,000 from the BLM, and additional contributions from ATV user groups and tour operators.

Jeff Riddle, the “western” Alpine Ranger, worked under the purview of the U.S. Forest Service, patrolling numerous 4WD roads in Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan counties, with the lion’s share of his salary coming from San Miguel County.

The problem was, San Miguel County was only getting a fraction of Riddle’s time, and was not having its own regulations fully enforced.

San Miguel, San Juan and Hinsdale counties have all enacted ordinances mandating that all OHV operators in their respective counties must have a valid driver’s license.

This contradicts state law, which allows kids as young as 10 to operate an OHV, provided that they are under the direct supervision of a licensed adult. Ouray County’s OHV regulations align with this state law.

The deaths of two children operating OHVs in Ouray and San Juan counties last summer brought the issue into sharp and painful focus.

“In good conscience, we can’t allow 10 year olds to drive on our high alpine roads,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes at a summit meeting on the topic held in Silverton last fall. “It’s almost a moral issue for us. We have put over $100,000 into the Alpine Ranger program and we have seen children killed.”

As a result of this philosophical and moral schism, San Miguel County has shifted the boundaries of its own Alpine Ranger program to include the neighboring counties that are in sync with its own regulations, while more or less severing its partnership with Ouray County.

A pending Memorandum of Understanding among San Miguel, San Juan and Hinsdale counties spells out the terms of the new alliance, which will go into effect on Memorial Day. Alpine Ranger Thomas Reyburn will patrol a new route this summer focusing not only on the Alpine Loop but also on Black Bear, Imogene, and Ophir passes, all of which lead to Telluride.

Along with San Miguel County’s shifting alliances have gone its money. This has left the U.S. Forest Service scrambling to find new funding sources for the so-called “western” Alpine Ranger program, which costs approximately $51,000 annually ($13,000 of that going directly toward the Ranger’s salary).

Compounding the problem, the Forest Service itself has re-allocated the money it formerly directed toward the Alpine Ranger position, to fund another seasonal worker who will focus only part-time on Alpine Ranger duties.

USFS Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker and Amanda Walker have recently poured much time and effort into finding new funding sources for the program. They approached the Ouray City Council last month to see if the city might be able to provide some financial support, since a big portion of the city’s summer economy depends on 4WD tourism on the roads that the western Alpine Ranger formerly patrolled.

While councilors were sympathetic to the problem, they were not willing to commit to an unbudgeted expenditure this year, but said they would consider putting something in the budget for next year.

“I believe them,” Randall-Parker said. “I think they did make the connection between the importance of motorized tourism and the position of the Alpine Ranger.”

Meanwhile, Ouray County, the motorized community, Yankee Boy Partnership Association and the Forest Service have stepped up to the plate and “will all be funding a portion of the program,” Randall-Parker said.

However, the program still won’t be funded nearly as robustly as it was in the past. As a result, there will not be a full-time Alpine Ranger patrolling the high country in Ouray County this summer.

Rather, the position will be covered on a part-time basis by several different entities. This includes Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which has a newly created state trail coordinator position for the southwestern region of Colorado this year. The coordinator, Ryan Crabb, is based out of Durango, but has pledged part-time assistance to Ouray County’s Alpine Ranger program. “We will be working out a schedule with him and he will be assisting with patrols,” Randall-Parker said. “This is good news.”

Additionally, the statewide OHV patrol team has increased its staffing level from two to four this year and has offered to bring team members to the Alpine Loop region to cover weekends and big events.

It’s better than nothing, but Randall-Parker is still worried about the reduced presence of an Alpine Ranger in the high country of Ouray County this summer. “My biggest concern is resource damage,” she said. “We are not going to stop looking to get an Alpine Ranger up there again full-time.”

In the meantime, she said, “I am very excited that the (CPW) state trails coordinator for the southwestern region of the state has offered assistance. That was huge. They are commissioned officers, and can enforce rules and regulations. We will see how it works out.”

swright@watchnewspapers.com or Tweet @iamsamwright

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