Hostile crowd greets forest officials

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A hostile crowd heckled two Forest Service officials over road closures and federal-lands policies, and Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell promised to cut a lock off a gate if necessary, during a meeting with one Montezuma County commissioner the night of Dec. 5.

The meeting had been arranged to allow Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla to give the commissioners an overview of the final Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan, which was formally released the next morning. However, Commissioner Larrie Rule was absent for medical reasons and Commissioner Steve Chappell was out of town, leaving Gerald Koppenhafer as the board’s sole representative.

About 30 citizens attended the meeting, which Koppenhafer said was unofficial because no quorum was present.

Padilla and Debbie Kill, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator with the Dolores district, proceeded with their overview of the agency’s final decision regarding the travel plan. However, not long into the meeting, people in the audience began interrupting the two, yelling out questions and skeptical comments.

At one point Padilla was asked how he could sleep at night and whether he believed in God.

The crowd accused forest officials of deceit and law-breaking. They also criticized the current commissioners, saying they had not stood up to the Forest Service and expressing hope that there would be a shift in attitude when two new commissioners take office in January.

Although the topic was supposed to be travel management for the Boggy-Glade area north of Dolores, the discussion ranged far and wide, including arguments over how roads merit protection under an old statute known as RS 2477, a speech about fascism, socialism and communism, and discussion on an old mining road near Mancos.

Padilla and Kill explained that the final decision notice for the travel plan includes:

* Motorized game retrieval in specific areas during hunting season;

* A new OHV trail;

* 379 miles of roads open to motor vehicles and UTVs.

The Boggy-Glade plan has been controversial for years. In 2010, a different plan was finalized but was overturned upon appeal because it allowed a higher road density in the area than was to be allowed under the overall management plan for the San Juan National Forest. However, the plan was also criticized fiercely for closing 62 miles of public roads, mostly old logging routes and unauthorized routes between other roads. The closures were to be offset by 63 new miles of ATV routes.

In response to the criticism, the Forest Service developed a new environmental assessment with a new “preferred alternative” that includes an amendment allowing increased road density, reversed some road closures based on public feedback, and allowed motorized game retrieval, which conflicts with Forest Service policy in most other areas.

However, the audience on Dec. 5 was not mollified by the changes.

“This guy ain’t even from this state, coming up there and telling us what the hell to do,” shouted one man, pointing at Padilla.

Dave Dove accused the officials of not following all the laws, only the ones that work well for them. “Stop it right now,” he said. “Go back to the drawing board. We understand you’re trying to protect the land. . . .There are probably some legitimate reasons to close some roads. . . but some of these roads have provided recreation and access for years.”

“We understand people have been using those roads for years,” said Kill. However, she said, in some places roads are only a half-mile apart. “Those spaces between those roads are important for resources – wildlife habitat, watersheds. It’s important to maintain those vegetated areas.”

But Dove said, “We don’t have a problem with not enough game out there.”

Many in the audience said the Forest Service doesn’t have the authority to close any roads without county permission.

“When will you be applying to the board of county commissioners for permits or a public hearing to close these roads?” Bud Garner, a former county-commission candidate, demanded repeatedly of Padilla, often interrupting him before he could answer.

Padilla finally said, “There won’t be a date. . . you’re not going to get the answer that you want.”

Garner then said, “We will go where we please when we please, and if we have to, we will restore the roads.”

The Forest Service’s methods of “decommissioning” old roads came under criticism for being too harsh and disruptive to the landscape. Garner said in tearing out the old Lost Canyon stock drive, the Forest Service piled dirt around trees and created giant berms and holes.

Spruell said the agency had “ripped up some nice little trails on Haycamp Mesa – that’s when I got mad.” He said the agency’s actions would promote the growth of noxious weeds.

Kill said the Forest Service had heard such concerns from the commissioners and had responded by implementing some “lighter-on-the-land practices” for taking out roads.

The crowd also argued with the officials over roads that might qualify for protection under an old statute called RS 2477. Such roads are considered historic and can be claimed by counties even if they lie on federal lands; however, courts have made counties prove those claims.

The audience maintained that any routes that existed prior to 1976 were automatically RS 2477 roads, but Padilla said as a district ranger he didn’t have the authority to make that determination; the county had to assert such claims and prove them in court.

There was considerable wrangling over whether the roads had to pre-date the creation of the national forest in 1905 or just exist prior to 1976, and how it could be established that a route qualified as a 2477 road.

“Give us your criteria,” newly elected District Attorney Will Furse told the forest officials. “Quit making it a moving target.”

Padilla said it wasn’t up to local officials to decide which roads qualified.

“They’re 2477 because they are!” Garner said.

“We don’t interpret it the same way,” Padilla said. “I don’t know what more to say than that.”

Padilla brought up an old road in the Echo Basin area northeast of Mancos called the Red Arrow Mine Road. It is often cited as an example of a local road that would qualify as an RS 2477 route because it predated the existence of the national forest and has been used continuously for access to the mine. When the county commissioners mentioned this to forest officials, the agency agreed in January to turn management of the road over to the county without an RS 2477 claim.

“We said we could transfer the authority under other processes that are a lot easier,” Padilla said, adding that if there are other roads that people believe qualify for RS 2477 protection, the agency would consider turning them over, too.

However, the Red Arrow road has not yet been turned over to the county and mine owner Craig Liukko is being made to pay a performance bond to use it, Spruell said. If Liukko doesn’t pay, the agency may lock an existing gate across the road at the end of Road L where public land begins.

Padilla said Liukko was only being asked to do what all other commercial operators must do to use national-forest roads, and that his money would be refunded when a perpetual easement for the road is granted to the county. Padilla said the county didn’t make a formal application to take over the road until July of this year and the process has not been completed.

“You’re trying to force the sheriff, being me, to go and cut your lock off and charge you so that you can go to court so you can make a presentation on why you have the ability to close the roads,” Spruell said.

“You want a test case.”

He continued, “If you post a lock on the gate I’ll go cut it.”

But Spruell also said he was not attacking Padilla and Kill personally, just the Forest Service in general. “You live amongst us. We are your friends and neighbors, but you keep acting like we’re the enemy,” he said. He said he wants to work with the agency but the Forest Service is uncooperative and will not return his phone calls.

“I have returned all your phone calls,” Padilla said, and Spruell agreed, “You have.” Spruell added, “I don’t feel you’re my enemy.”

Kill said Spruell should contact them if anyone with the agency did not return his calls.

“The meeting we’re having now is so beautiful,” Spruell said. “People are exercising their freedom of speech and doing a damn good job of it.”

Padilla and Kill said they appreciated the public’s input. Padilla said he would try to arrange for an RS 2477 expert with the Forest Service to come speak in Montezuma County about the agency’s take on the old law.

Kill said a 45-day appeal period has started for the final decision, and no road closures or other measures will be implemented before spring.

 

 

 

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