Vandalism, illegal off-roading, dumping trash, cutting down live trees – all of these damaging actions have forced increased security and closure measures on the road going up Smelter Mountain.
“People are destructive,” said Bob Watson, wildlife property technician for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “And everyone is tired of it now.”
County Road 212, just south of Durango, remains a county road for about a mile or so before turning into a restricted-access route for emergency management officials to get to communication towers atop Smelter Mountain.
The public has never been allowed at the top of Smelter Mountain, about 4 miles up County Road 212, but nevertheless, it has become a popular hangout spot, known for its views of Durango.
Smelter Mountain is also part of Bodo State Wildlife Area, which is closed from Dec. 1 to April 15 to protect critical winter habitat and migration corridors for big game, such as elk and deer.
In 2004, vandalism to the towers and concerns about wildlife prompted three gates to be installed: one about a mile up County Road 212 to be closed from Dec. 1 to Aug. 14 to protect wildlife, and two others near the tower sites to keep people out.
But over the years, the gates were severely damaged and signs about proper access have been destroyed. And, people kept driving around the gates.
Watson said someone hooked a chain on their vehicle to the gatepost and tried to pull the post out of the ground. The attempt wasn’t successful, but the gate was bent so badly it’s no longer operational.
What’s more, people are illegally off-roading to get around the gates, said Adrian Archuleta, acting area wildlife manager for CPW.
There’s also evidence of people cutting down live trees, he said. And in recent months, there’s been a significant amount of trash dumped along the country road and in the area.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of trash, it’s like someone came back with a roll off dumpster and just emptied it,” Watson said. “It’s just gotten out of hand to the point where it’s frustrating.”
In 2019, a car went off the top of Smelter Mountain, killing a 31-year-old Durango man.
“It’s become a human health and safety issue,” Archuleta said.
Agencies with a stake in the area, such as CPW, La Plata County and the Bureau of Reclamation, came together recently to brainstorm ways to better protect the area and increase security.
“All the parties that have equipment up there have expressed a need to increase security,” said La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham. “We want to protect our equipment.”
This week, the gate about a mile up County Road 212 is being removed, and a new gate is being installed near the intersection of County Road 212 and County Road 210.
From Dec. 1 to Aug. 14, this new gate will be closed to restrict motor vehicles. Outside of this time frame, the gate will be open, but the two gates near the emergency communications towers will be closed.
Archuleta said CPW doesn’t have the resources for regular patrols, so the hope is the new gate will keep people out.
“There are people who are going to push the issue,” he said. “People will always try to get around gates. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”
It should be noted, the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive uranium tailings pile, which is capped, is located just off County Road 212.
Watson said it’s vital for people to follow the rules about access to Smelter, especially during winter closures to protect wildlife. Not only is the land winter range, it also is a migration route for animals moving from public lands in the north to areas south.
“If we lose Bodo, it’s going to be a bad day for wildlife,” Archuleta said.
During the time when Bodo is not closed for winter wildlife habitat, the area is open to recreational activities, such as hunting and hiking.
“It’s not a complete closure of this landscape,” Archuleta said. “It’s just another step to keep what’s allowed, allowed, so we don’t lose that in the future.”
This year has seen several closures as a result of vandalism and overuse.
During summer, the popular hangout at Bakers Bridge, which is on private property but has been used by the public for years, was fenced off after increasing reports of vandalism.
And this fall, the U.S. Forest Service announced a permit system is coming for the Ice Lakes Trail west of Silverton, one of the most popular hiking spots in Southwest Colorado.
While the trail has been heavily used for years, this summer brought unprecedented crowds, along with trash, human waste and trail damage. A wildfire, believed to be human-caused, broke out on the trail in October.