Motorized user groups appeal forest travel plan | AspenTimes.com

Motorized user groups appeal forest travel plan

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Eight appeals have been filed over the proposed Travel Management Plan (TMP) for the White River National Forest by organizations that want more roads and trails kept open for motorized recreation.

On the flip side of the debate, one appeal was filed by a coalition of environmental groups that contend the Forest Service bowed to political pressure and left open some routes that should be closed.

A total of 12 appeals – three appeals weren’t philosophically based – were filed over White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams’ decision on the TMP in May. The appeals will be reviewed by a team at the Forest Service’s regional office in Lakewood, Colo., and decisions will be rendered by Aug. 4, according to Wendy Jo Haskins, planner and resource staff officer for the White River National Forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs. The team can deny the appeals or remand issues raised back to the supervisor’s office with recommendations for further consideration.

Fitzwilliams said in May that appeals were certain to be filed since the implications of the TMP are so vast. The document will dictate who can travel where in the 2.3 million-acre national forest for the next decade. The White River is one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country. It surrounds Aspen and includes lands in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Summit counties.

The travel plan calls for 692 miles of “bandit” trails and roads – made by users without permission from the agency – to be decommissioned. Another 519 miles of routes that are currently open and legal to travel will be decommissioned.

Three groups representing motorized user groups filed a petition claiming the proposed closure is “unprecedented.” They demand that more than two dozen routes remain open rather than being closed. The three groups are the Trails Preservation Alliance, based in Colorado Springs; the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition of Littleton, Colo.; and the Rocky Mountain Enduro Circuit, which is geared toward racing dirt bikes. Their appeal was handled by a law firm from Boise, Idaho.

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“The decision caps the end of a lengthy but badly misdirected planning effort,” said the appeal. They contend the number of off-highway vehicle enthusiasts is swelling, so the Forest Service should be looking for ways to accommodate them while also protecting the land.

“Rather than evaluating the diverse user preferences and attempting a proactive effort to meet demand, this Travel Plan process largely seems a defensive effort in which the [Forest Service] looks to safety, budget, the ever-present handful of ‘conflict’ uses, and similar excuses to not only close/restrict use but to physically eliminate routes,” the appeal said.

The Trails Preservation Alliance and its allies are fighting to keep specific trails open in the Basalt Mountain-Red Table trail system, the Triangle Peak-Lenado trail system, the Thompson Creek area and Red Table Mountain as well as trails outside the Roaring Fork Valley.

A similar appeal was filed by the BlueRibbon Coalition, a Pocatello, Idaho, nonprofit dedicated to fighting for access to public lands. Other small groups joining the fight on behalf of motorized users were the Holy Cross 4-Wheel-Drive Club from Lake and Eagle counties, the Summit County Off-Road Riders of Frisco, and the Western Slope ATV Association of Grand Junction.

The Colorado Snowmobile Association filed an appeal to retain more on-snow terrain, and the Aspen-based Powder to the People filed an appeal to keep lands east of Richmond Ridge open to snowmobile use.

Nova Guides Inc. filed an appeal to keep motorized and mechanized access open to public lands it is permitted to use in the Camp Hale area. An individual land owner in Summit County filed an appeal over access issues specifically pertaining to his property. The town of Avon also appealed to keep a forest road open at its boundary.

Forest Service officials said they couldn’t comment on specific objections during the appeal process. In May, Fitzwilliams said he and his staff thought the plan retains a diversity of routes for a diversity of users.

The TMP designates 1,410 miles of roads open to licensed vehicles. In addition, 1,613 miles of routes will be opened for licensed motorcycles and 1,066 miles will be opened to unlicensed motorcycles.

For non-motorized users, 2,172 miles of roads and trails are open to bicycles; 3,373 miles are open to equestrians; and 3,592 miles of routes are open to hikers.

The plan also legalizes 225 miles of formerly unauthorized roads and trails. The blessing of those bandit routes spurred part of the appeal by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter and Colorado Wild.

The appeal by the environmental coalition said they are “generally quite pleased with the thoughtful and courageous decisions made in the Record of Decision to design a travel management system that is both fiscally and ecologically sustainable.”

However, the environmental groups said they couldn’t give blanket approval to the plan because of “legal inadequacies.” They claimed a “minimum road system” as defined by federal law wasn’t really examined.

The group also objected to including certain routes in the legal system. In the Roaring Fork River basin, they want Triangle Peak Trail closed because it is a “shadow trail” that follows another route. Wilderness Workshop and its allies also want a route closed on Huntsman Ridge, southwest of Carbondale

“The route is a poster child for the environmental damage both on- and off-route caused by inappropriate Off Road Vehicle route placement,” the appeal said. “It winds straight up a steep hillside, channelizing run-off which causes deep incision and gullying of the roadway itself and off-route sheet erosion, gullying and debris flow.”

In the draft TMP, the Huntsman Ridge route was targeted for closure. The Forest Service inexplicably changed course, the environmental groups said.

” … we can only surmise that this about face gave ascendancy political concerns over protection of the land and minimizing the efforts of Off-road Vehicles,” the appeal said.

Pitkin County also filed an appeal over relatively minor issues. It wants county open space in Kobey Park and Sellars Park clearly marked as closed to snowmobile use in the Forest Service plan. In addition, it wants possible use of an old wagon road in the Crystal River Valley retained.

Garfield County was among numerous groups that filed an invalid appeal. The county didn’t comment on the plan in an earlier step, so it had no basis to file an appeal. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is working with county officials to try to address their concerns, Haskins said.

Other groups’ appeals were ruled invalid because they didn’t raise legal or administrative issues that the agency could act upon, she said.

If all appeals are denied, the White River National Forest staff will start implementing the TMP on Aug. 5 by starting education of the changes and engineering changes to some routes that will be freshly closed or legally opened. In addition, the agency will evaluate to make sure changes are effective and adhered to, and pursue enforcement if necessary.

If appeals require more analysis by the forest staff, implementation may have to wait until later this year or next spring.

The appellants have the option of filing litigation if their issues aren’t addressed in the administrative appeals.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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