Forest plan decisions face delay
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” A plan that will determine what uses are allowed on nearly 5,000 miles of roads and trails in the White River National Forest won’t be completed this year as planned, the U.S. Forest Service conceded this month.
The agency says it needs additional time to do the travel management plan correctly, according to Forest Service documents released Thursday. Headquarters for the White River are in Glenwood Springs.
The plan has major implications for everybody from hikers to off-road vehicle enthusiasts. It is a meticulous exam of every trail and road in the forest. It will determine where all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and other motorized uses are appropriate, and where hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers reign supreme.
One goal of the Forest Service is to ease conflicts in the White River, which studies indicate has the highest number of recreational visitors of any national forest in the country.
The federal agency’s leaders directed each forest supervisor’s office in 2003 to prepare a travel management plan in response to the threat of “unmanaged recreation,” the Forest Service’s national website said.
“The initial focus on getting a handle on this issue is to deal with the use of off-highway vehicles,” the site said. “Each year, many miles of user-created roads are created, leaving scars on national lands and causing ecological damage to meadows, streambeds, sensitive areas, vegetation and soils.”
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, said the travel management plan will decide the fate of hundreds of miles of “bandit” trails and roads in the White River National Forest.
There are an estimated 500 to 1,000 miles of bandit routes in the 2.3 million-acre White River, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley and stretches from Summit County to Rifle. The Forest Service plans to “legalize” some of those routes and eliminate others.
More is at stake than recreation uses. Shoemaker said the travel management plan will also determine what routes are appropriate for logging trucks and gas drilling rigs. In some cases, the Forest Service might try to approve motorized use in areas conservationists deem eligible for wilderness, which doesn’t allow motorized uses.
Wilderness Workshop is among the most interested observers of the process. It took its own inventory of routes in the forest and submitted comments on how all should be managed.
The White River supervisor’s office organized a team in 2001 to start working on travel management. A draft plan was released in July 2006 that outlined proposals for winter and summer use of roads and trails. The agency planned to submit a final plan in summer 2007 but determined it would rather do the plan right rather than fast.
The plan was delayed for two primary reasons, according to agency documents. First, people thought the drafts were too complex to understand easily. Second, there is a national directive to study safety where unlicensed vehicles like ATVs and dirt bikes mix with licensed vehicles on well-maintained roads. Those types of roads are often used as connectors to provide access to four-wheel-drive roads or trails.
“The information and data gathered in the safety study had a greater impact than was originally anticipated by forest officials,” said an agency document. “If unlicensed vehicles aren’t allowed to travel on all or parts of those (connector) routes for safety reasons” it could alter management of numerous roads and trails.
The agency doesn’t have an estimate yet of how many miles of routes could be closed. In some cases, safety hazards can be addressed with signs, according to the agency. On other routes, closures might be necessary.
In a letter sent earlier this month to forest users interested in travel management, the forest supervisor’s office said it received 1,447 formal comments after the draft plan was released in July 2006. Many people commented that the plan was cumbersome and difficult to understand. The White River team is working on a supplemental draft that it hopes is more user friendly.
The agency’s goal is to release that supplemental draft, collect more public input and finalize the plan all in spring 2008. “The result will be a simplified approach aimed at showing the legal travel system,” the notice to forest users said.
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Local fire officials in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties are heightening their fire concerns, and starting this week Stage 1 fire restrictions will be enacted. Stage 1 means no campfires in undeveloped sites, no fireworks and no smoking outside unless it’s in an area cleared of all combustible materials.