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The San Juan National Forest — a gem to be treasured

Each year, thousands of people travel many miles to visit and enjoy the San Juan National Forest.

As Pagosans, we live right in the middle of this gem. We see the mountain vistas every day, we drive by the U.S. Forest Service building frequently, and yet many of us know very little about the National Forest. We tend to take it for granted. What do you really know about this amazing area that surrounds us?

Fishing, hunting, camping and hiking are a few of the most commonly thought-of opportunities that can be found in “our” National Forest. Many other opportunities are out there as well — rock climbing, mushroom hunting, photography, bird watching, mountain biking and, certainly, off-road vehicle riding.

A dedicated staff works throughout the year to maintain the area and to plan and provide the many services the forest has to offer. Throughout the year there is a hard working group of about 30 individuals and that number just about doubles during the summer months.

The sheer size of the forest amazes most people who see the figures. The Pagosa Ranger District and Field Office is the easternmost unit of the San Juan Public Lands. Responsible for National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, the entire unit of the San Juan Public Lands includes 2,533,945 acres of national public lands. The National Forest itself covers over 1,878,846 acres (2,935.7 square miles). This land lies in Archuleta, Conejos, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Rio Grande, San Miguel and San Juan counties. The forest is bounded by the Uncompahgre National Forest to the north and the Rio Grande National Forest to the north and east. It covers most of the southern San Juan Mountains west of the Continental Divide. What a playground!

While the San Juan Public Lands Center is in Durango, the field office here in Pagosa Springs serves the area that surrounds the town. That area is roughly up to the Continental Divide to the north and east, to the divide between First Notch and the Piedra River to the west, Southern Ute lands to the south, and to the New Mexico state line near Chama.

One of the best ways to learn more about the San Juan National Forest is to drop by the Pagosa Ranger District Office — the building at the corner of 2nd and Pagosa streets with Smokey Bear out front. Here you will find a variety of free information about public land management and specific recreational opportunities. The San Juan Mountains Association also operates a bookstore/gift shop in the lobby area. Proceeds from the shop support the many ongoing programs and educational offerings of this interpretive organization, acting in support of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

This is also where you purchase permits for forest products for your personal use. Did you know, for example, that for a very reasonable price you can obtain a permit to take such items as firewood, landscape rock, small tree transplants, poles and Christmas trees from the forest? The staff member on duty will provide information about where in the forest you can go to find these items, and will advise you about regulations that are enforced in order to keep the Forest healthy and beautiful for future generations.

You will find a large variety of informational brochures at the office. Among the most popular are trip planning guides for areas such as South San Juan and Weminuche wildernesses, the Piedra Area, and the Williams Creek area. You can find out about the current motorized travel rules for off-highway vehicle use in the district. You can learn about camping possibilities, horseback riding trails, hiking trails, or fishing spots.

This time of year you may be anxious to get into the forest for some outdoor activities after having been cooped up for the winter. You may be ready for some hiking, climbing or biking as an alternative to skiing and snowshoeing. The Pagosa Ranger District office is the place to obtain the information you need. The roads in town are dry and easily passable, but this may not be the case yet where you wish to visit. National Forest roads and motorized trails are closed seasonally for your safety, to minimize impacts to wildlife, and (especially during this mud season) to prevent road damage.

Additionally, as of summer 2009, off-road motorized vehicles (OHVs) are allowed only on roads or trails that are designated for such use. Roads and trails not specifically designated for use by such vehicles are off limits. You are responsible for knowing which roads and trails are open for motorized use under the new regulations. Know where you can go before you head out. Maps and written descriptions are available at the district office. For more information you can also call the office at 264-2268 or visit the website,

A further note of caution: by law, motorized vehicles are never allowed in the Piedra Area, the Weminuche Wilderness, and the South San Juan Wilderness. Also remember that all OHVs operated on public lands, including National Forests, in Colorado need to have the proper vehicle registration from Colorado State Parks (

The health of the trees in the Forest is always a major concern. This management is always a “work in progress.” A variety of vegetation treatments are used. Throughout the winter the staff does planning and environmental analysis of proposed projects. Data is analyzed and environmental assessments are written throughout the winter for projects that will be implemented during the spring and summer months.

A large part of the management in our area involves thinning and prescribed burns. Prescribed burns are normally conducted annually, especially near area subdivisions. There is great emphasis placed on having our forest less susceptible to disease and wildfire. Other ongoing projects include grazing analyses, recreation plans, new trail development and road easements. Some staff members are also involved in the first stage of a Travel Management Plan for the Turkey Springs area — for both motorized and non-motorized travel. This project should be of interest to local residents since it is easily accessible and “very close to home” for many.

The Forest Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) work closely together in the same basic physical areas. Perhaps the best way to distinguish the duties of these two entities is to note that the Forest Service manages habitat and the Division of Wildlife manages animals and fish. So, for example, if you are spending time along the Piedra River Trail, the beautiful trees, other vegetation and trail, as well as nearby campground facilities, are managed by the Forest Service. The DOW manages the wandering bears, the fish in the river, the beavers, the elk, deer, etc.

When a hunter purchases a wildlife game tag, the funds provide revenue for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, but do not provide funding for the Forest Service, even though the forest may be heavily impacted by some hunters.

All users of the forest can help the Forest Service in this respect. If you have seen or have been guilty of disregard for the forest in the past, this is an easy bad habit to break. If litter is properly taken care of, for example, the Forest Service does not have to waste valuable time and money dealing with the mundane task of cleaning up someone else’s mess.

If you see someone cutting live trees, using a motorized vehicle in the wrong area, or blatantly disregarding the forest rules, these acts can be reported to a Forest Service employee. Like all programs, there is not a bottomless well of dollars to be spent maintaining forests. Why waste what money there is remedying the carelessness of a few forest visitors?

There have been questions for years about residents who live or have property “in the middle of the forest.” These parcels are called “in-holdings,” and they often exist as a result of historical mining claims or homesteads that were in place before the National Forest became a legal entity. Residents who live within the forest on a year-round basis may have vehicle access to their homes through closed/locked Forest Service gates. However, they have maintenance responsibility for the roads, and there is an agreement that if the road is damaged the homeowner is ultimately responsible for the repair. The San Juan National Forest has many of these in-holdings.

Most of the campgrounds in the forest should be open by Memorial Day weekend. If you are thinking about taking up residence in the National Forest for the entire summer season, however, you had best get some alternate housing plans in place. Check with the campground hosts at individual campgrounds for length-of-stay limits. If you are planning to do dispersed camping (camping within the Forest, but outside of a campground) there is a limit of 14 days in one location, with a total of 28 days in the San Juan National Forest within a 60-day period.

There is no system for advance campground reservations within the district, but reservations can be made for Palisades Horse Camp due to its limited accommodations. There are plans for more reservation opportunities in the future, but there is not a set time for these plans to be in place. Forest Service campgrounds are operated by a concessionaire and there are hosts on site. The Forest Service oversees the campground program, but does not run the day-to-day operations.

There will be postings of the upcoming summer interpretive program offerings. Each summer, there are programs planned for a wide variety of audiences. Postings will be made at the Forest Service Office and will be announced in The SUN, on the radio stations and via postings at various businesses.

The Forest Service management and staff realize they cannot please all the people in every situation. There are people who want the forest to be left as a totally naturally environment while others expect to find recreational opportunities on every square inch of land. The purpose of the Forest Service is to both “serve” and “conserve.” This is often a hard act to balance. Everyone needs to keep in mind that the forest is more than “ a pretty place.” It is a place where things happen and can be a place of meditation, inspiration, education and recreation. When each person does his or her part to respect the natural surroundings, everyone can enjoy this tremendous gift that surrounds us.