Forest travel plan upheld on appeal – with a caveat | AspenTimes.com

Forest travel plan upheld on appeal – with a caveat

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – An appeals officer with the U.S. Forest Service has denied numerous appeals trying to prevent the White River National Forest from implementing parts of a plan that will determine what methods of travel are allowed on what routes.

However, there was a caveat in the hearing officer’s findings: He determined that the White River must perform more studies on a proposal to close and “decommission” 519 miles of roads and trails.

The White River, headquartered in Glenwood Springs, completed a Travel Management Plan (TMP) earlier this year that will determine use patterns in the 2.25-million acre national forest for at least the next decade. Twelve appeals were filed, the bulk of them by groups representing off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. Organizations for dirt bikers, snowmobilers and other off-road enthusiasts want to prevent closure of routes.

One conservation group, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, filed an appeal seeking additional closures; its appeal also was denied.

A top official in the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest reviewed the appeals. He determined that it wasn’t necessary to withdraw the TMP or remand portions back to the White River Forest supervisor’s office for further review. In addition, the decision to close 519 miles of routes was upheld, but the hearing officer said the Forest Service must perform more studies through its National Environmental Policy Act on the decommissioning and rehabilitation methods that will be used.

The acting deputy forester for the Rocky Mountain Region upheld the hearing officer’s findings in a decision dated Aug. 4. The decisions were made public Monday. That is the final administrative appeal in the process. If appeals are pursued further, they must be made through the courts.

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Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which filed an appeal, said the decision was not surprising but disappointing. The coalition, based in Pocatello, Idaho, is a national nonprofit organization that fights to preserve access to public lands.

“This plan hurt,” Hawthorne said. “We feel we’ve cut to the bone. Every mile is so important.”

Recent TMPs for national forests around the West have reduced available routes for off-highway vehicles by 20 to 30 percent, Hawthorne said, and now the White River is following suit.

Reducing the numbers of routes where dirt bikers and other off-road users can go leads to congestion on the remaining trails, the coalition contends. Hawthorne said the White River plan is also poor in “systems management” or looking at the routes as a whole and providing loops and connections for off-road users.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition wanted the White River supervisor’s office to delay the decommissioning of any routes until implementation of the TMP and it can be assessed whether the closures are necessary.

The White River said its TMP gives all users ample forest access. The hearing officer and regional office concurred.

The letter denying the Blue Ribbon Coalition’s appeal said 1,613 miles of roads and trails are open to licensed motorcycles and 1,023 miles are open to all-terrain vehicles. Mountain bikes have 2,172 miles of routes open to them. Hikers have 3,592 miles of routes, although the forest is open to cross-country foot traffic.

The White River TMP will “legalize” 225 miles of routes that weren’t official trails or roads, while it will decommission 519 miles of routes.

In the winter, 695,723 acres are open to snowmobiles, while another 517,693 acres are restricted to designated routes.

Officials with Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition said the Forest Service statistics are deceiving. The TMP will leave 56 miles of bona fide singletrack trails open to dirt bikers, said Dennis Larratt, a founder of the organization and a trails advocate. Singletrack is a narrow path that winds through woods and meadows. Dirt bikers, mountain bikers and hikers covet such trails.

The Forest Service considers slightly more than 200 miles of routes singletrack trail open to dirt bikes, Larratt said, but about 150 miles of that is really two-track roads that got downgraded in classification.

The coalition, its allies and local clubs that it works with accept restrictions to designated routes for off-highway users, Larratt said. “We need a much more equitable allocation of singletrack motorized routes,” he said.

The Colorado Off Highway Coalition of Littleton filed an appeal to the TMP along with the Trails Preservation Alliance and the Rocky Mountain Enduro Circuit seeking to keep specific trails from closing, including some in the Basalt Mountain-Red Table Mountain trail system, some in the Triangle Peak-Lenado trail system and some in the Thompson Creek area.

Jerry Abboud, executive director of the coalition, said the group isn’t approaching the issue with a “pillage and plunder” attitude. It might be appropriate to close some of the 519 miles the TMP targets for decommissioning, he said, but the coalition wants a more thorough analysis of the closures and the way they will be closed. If new trails were being created, Abboud said, conservation groups would expect a environmental study on the impacts. The same level of study should be conducted for closures, he said, noting that he has seen the Forest Service use a bulldozer in some cases to decommission a trail.

The Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition won’t comment on the closure and decommission plans on all 519 miles of targeted routes, he said, but the issue is important in some cases. “If you’ve got a route that’s critical, we’re going to weigh in on that,” he said.

The NEPA process requires public input.

Pitkin County was among the groups that saw their appeals denied. The county wanted a nonmotorized designation of an old wagon road in the Crystal River Valley and it wanted land adjacent to county open space in Kobey Park and Sellars Park clearly marked as closed to snowmobiles. The county also wanted the TMP to address parking demands for Kobey Park snowmobilers.

An Aspen grassroots organization, Powder to the People, failed in its appeal to open the McFarlane’s area on the east side of Richmond Ridge to public snowmobiles.

The denial of the appeals clears the way for the Forest Service to proceed with plans to educate the public on what routes are open to what users. Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams previously said that informing and educating the public is a key to the plans success. New forest maps will show what routes are open to what uses. The agency already has started placing trail signs with the information.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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