Forest Service closing in on travel plan for White River forest |

Forest Service closing in on travel plan for White River forest

ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest Service took a big step Friday toward completing a long delayed plan that will decide who uses what trails and roads around Aspen and elsewhere in the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest.

The forest supervisor’s office released a supplemental draft environmental-impact statement that accounts for hundreds of comments from hikers, bikers, skiers, equestrians, environmentalists and motorizes users on the agency’s proposal for managing travel.

Those users are sometimes at odds with one another. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts, for example, might be trying to preserve use of trails that conservationists want closed. The potential for conflict, and even litigation, has forced the Forest Service to move slowly and go through an exhaustive process designed to answer concerns and arrive at legally justifiable conclusions.

Resdients who are interested in the process, identified as stakeholders by the Forest Service, received a refined travel management plan in the mail Thursday. The plan also is available for the public on the White River National Forest website at http://www.fs.fed. us/r2/whiteriver/ by following the Travel Management link.

Groups ranging from the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association to Powder to the People and Wilderness Workshop to the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition are reviewing the hundreds of pages of new material to see how refinements have affected winter and summer travel on their favorite trails and roads.

The public now has 60 days to comment on the supplemental draft EIS. Those comments will be reviewed, then a final decision will be made in spring or summer 2009, said forest planner Wendy Haskins.

An updated forest management plan released in 1999 set general direction on travel management, but the supervisor’s office decided travel issues needed to be considered separately. The Forest Service took comments on travel issues in fall 2002, then released various alternatives in June 2006. Comments were taken on the alternatives and helped create a new preferred alternative released Friday.

Now comments will be taken again before the agency wraps up the process.

The most controversial travel management issue in the Aspen area has been tackled separately by Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Irene Davidson. She ruled earlier this year that the Forest Service would enforce a ban on public use of snowmobiles on forest lands on the back of Aspen Mountain. The Aspen Skiing Co.’s powder tour operation will be the exception as a permit holder.

The supplemental draft EIS released Friday shows that was the top issue of concern among people who commented on travel management issues in the district. At least two dozen citizens submitted comments urging the Forest Service to allow the public to use snowmobiles on forest lands off Richmond Ridge. Many writers accused the Forest Service of permitting “elitist” policies by allowing the Skico to have motorized access but not the public.

“With regard to Richmond Ridge near Aspen, I say share it or close it to everyone,” wrote Jon Silver during the comment period. “No one person or company owns our National Forest. If they did, we would have to change the name to White River Private Forest!”

Only one person wrote urging the Forest Service to more aggressively enforce restrictions on snowmobile travel.

While that issue apparently won’t be revisited, forest officials have numerous other issues to decide. It’s not always about restricting users from parts of the forest. The agency is also pondering opening a handful of new routes to different users in different places to create additional recreation opportunities. Some bandits trails created in the Smuggler/Hunter Creek area by mountain bikers, for example, will be legalized in the process.

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