by Darrell Arnold
SINF- Jeffer Wingate is the Forest Ranger in charge of San Isabel National Forest (SINF) in Huerfano County. In fact, his jurisdiction spills over into Las Animas County as well. It extends all the way from Greenhorn Mountain and the Upper Huerfano to the Snowy Range, the Spanish Peaks Wilderness and beyond Cuchara Pass to the Purgatoire.
Though Wingate’s area of San Isabel National Forest is relatively small compared to other national forests in the country, he is responsible for supervising a wide variety of multiple-use applications in our county.
Recreation is the primary use here, including such activities as hunting, hiking, biking, photography, wildlife watching, motorcycling, and 4-wheeling.
"The American people," says Wingate, "own the national forest, and all of them have legitimate and traditional rights to use it in a variety of ways. We maintain our forest roads and trails for the enjoyment of everyone."
The natural resources jewel of the area is the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area, encompassing 19,200 acres and two spectacular mountains. Since 2000, when that area received wilderness designation, visitor use has increased.
Wingate comments, "People love climbing in this wilderness even though it does not have a 14,000-ft. peak. The West Peak Trail is a very popular place to hike. That trail is the most heavily used trail in our forest."
Motorized vehicles are not allowed in wilderness areas, but horsemen and hikers have full access to 27 miles of well-maintained trails there. The .7 mile Salazar Trail is also handicapped accessible.
Elsewhere in the SINF, primarily west of Colorado Highway 12, there are 18.5 miles available to ATV users, 22 miles for motorcyclists, and 37 miles for bicyclists, horsebackers, and hikers. Those multi-use trails include the North Fork Trail, Indian Trail, Dodgeton Trail, Baker Trail, Dike Trail, Coal Creek Trail, and Wildcat Trail.
In addition to the trail system, there are also two popular four-wheel-drive roads in the Huerfano County portion of SINF. Seven-mile-long Road 421 heads up Indian Creek beyond Sulphur Springs, and five-mile-long Road 436 climbs from Blue Lakes Campground to the lofty tundra divide north of Trinchera Peak. Wingate’s office in La Veta has an excellent map designating appropriate usages.
According to Wingate, we in Huerfano County are very fortunate to have a nearby national forest that hasn’t been overrun by the public.
"We have one of the last vestiges of what all the Front Range forests used to be like. We are blessed here because we don’t have a huge population putting pressure on the resource. From Colorado Springs on north, the forest is way overused by people who really need to get away from their stressful urban environment.
"But,"continues Wingate, "it may be only a matter of time. We will gradually see increased pressure here too."
As for current use, Wingate says, "Our forest here is seeing overnight use go down a little bit. Our numbers for day and quick trips are going up. I don’t know if that’s related to fuel costs or the changing recreational needs of the public. It seems like more people are only coming for short visits. We don’t see as many backpackers or campers as we used to. There’s still plenty but the numbers are coming down a little.
"Most of the activity is for wildlife viewing, nature viewing and day hikes. We still get backpackers and hunters who are out for days at a time, but the trend seems to be away from that.
"The motorized use of the forest is increasing here and throughout America. Where we used to see a lot of families coming with horses and mules and spending a week or two on a family vacation, people are now coming with ATVs and their kids on mini-motorcycles."