Four separate groups of campers who deliberately moved cones and signs from a closed road in order to hike illegally in San Juan County on Sunday and on Tuesday nights were the first outsiders given a citation for defying a travel ban issued by the sheriff on backcountry activities there.
Sheriff Bruce Conrad told San Juan County commissioners in their Wednesday meeting that the people who received the tickets either removed the barriers and signs, drove through and replaced them, or hid the cones and signs in the bushes. One even drove over the cones in his zeal to enjoy the great outdoors.
“Sheriff Conrad sat there and watched them do it,” said DeAnne Gallegos, Public Information Officer for the city of Silverton.
They were cited with a violation of a public health order and with disregarding a traffic control barrier. All four vehicles were accessing a back road which leads to the popular Ice Lakes hiking area.
San Juan County is home to the small town of Silverton, which has 600 residents and has had only one confirmed case of COVID-19. The community has been restrictive during the pandemic because if the virus were to spread there, medical and emergency services could be quickly overwhelmed.
With Ouray the closest town about 20 miles away, San Juan County remains closed to outsiders looking to recreate. Under Gov. Jared Polis’ April 24 Safer-at-Home orders, Coloradans have been encouraged to recreate within 10 miles of their home.
Conrad told the Durango Herald that last Saturday morning he turned away 62 cars as they tried to drive into town, and that at least a couple were aggressive toward him.
Conrad issued a “locals only” policy in March in response to Polis’ earlier shelter-in-place order, essentially barring skiers, snowshoers and hikers coming into the area. In Silverton, if a car with out-of-county license plates pulls into town, there is a risk of being towed, ticketed or jailed.
This week’s citations were the closest Conrad had come to enforcing his policy.
“These people have no idea how to hike on snow and ice,” says San Juan County Administrator Willie Tookey. “And if they got stuck up there and they had COVID-19, it puts our search and rescue people at risk.”
San Juan County commissioners were expected to open up their back roads this week but have decided to barricade them in hopes people will stay out. They’ll make a decision as to whether to open them back up again during their next scheduled meeting May 27.
With campgrounds opening in some state parks, more outsiders may try to sneak into San Juan’s backcountry illegally.
“You’re never going to have 100% compliance. But when you consciously remove a road barrier and cones and disrespect what the county is asking you to abide by, you’ve earned that ticket,” Gallegos said.
With significant tax revenue loss due to the pandemic, and in hopes of dissuading more unwanted visitors, county commissioners also decided Wednesday to save money and further coronavirus risk by not paying to plow the backroads this year.
“We’re gonna let it melt,” Tookey said.