By Jim Mimiaga
The formal appeal by the Montezuma County commissioners to halt the proposed Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan will go forward after last-ditch negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service failed on Feb. 7.
During a two-hour meeting at the Anasazi Heritage Center, the county commission and three Forest Service officials could not reconcile differences in policy regarding road closures and motorized use on the vast forest lands north of Dolores.
“It appears we cannot come to an agreement, and we will continue processing your appeal,” said Dolores district ranger Derek Padilla following the discussion.
In its appeal letter, the commission argues motorized users are being denied cross-country access, proposed road closures threaten traditional uses, and science showing threats to wildlife and watershed from roads is exaggerated.
The Forest Service stood by its policy of closing redundant and non-system roads in the plan, and the cross-country motorized ban except for game retrieval during hunting season. Forest officials asserted that high road densities in some areas do threaten the watershed and wildlife, and they disagreed that motorized uses were being denied fair access.
“The Forest Service is saying that the proliferation of roads, as well as too many administrative roads – many just a quarter-mile from each other – are a problem,” said Deborah Kill, a policy coordinator for the Dolores district. “We have guidelines for road densities.”
But she emphasized that the plan balances environmental concerns about too much human disturbance with reasonable public access to the forest.
“You can still drive to hunting grounds and collect firewood; there is still grazing and oil and gas. This is a working forest, a true multiple-use forest, and it always will be.
“The change for people is that they may not be able to drive to the exact spot they used to be able to drive to, but they will be able to get within a half-mile of that area,” Kill said.
User-created roads, and roads designed to be temporary, like from old logging projects, should be closed because they infringe on critical wildlife habitat, according to the Forest Service travel plan. When motorized users pass through, they scare away game animals like elk that are essential for hunters, officials said.
The Montezuma commissioners countered that locals depend on old roads.
“If the roads are still there, why not leave them?” asked Commissioner Keenan Ertel. “They are already built, and they provide access to public areas.”
The reason, explained Padilla, that some roads are proposed for closure “is they have impacts related to other natural resources like wildlife and the watershed. They displace wildlife and cause compaction of the soil, preventing absorption.
“Research shows that wildlife need security areas so they will not be bothered by vehicles and roads that dissect the habitat every quarter-mile.”
Commissioner Steve Chappell disagreed, commenting that wildlife is more resilient and tends to gather in logged-out areas because there is more grazing. He believes there has been less human use and commercial pressure on the forest, not more.
“We are seeing far less impacts here than in the past, but now there are more restrictions,” Chappell said.
Forest officials said user-created roads and redundant, temporary roads from logging and grazing operations are not engineered for regular use. They lack water-bars for proper drainage and have inadequate road beds, which leads to erosion.
“You say these roads are having an impact – how frequently are they being used? Do you have traffic counts? Plus they are closed for the winter,” Ertel commented. “These roads are used so infrequently, they don’t disturb anything.”
Padilla answered that the Forest Service does not conduct a lot of traffic counts, but added that since the popularity of the ATV beginning in the 1970s, more user-created trails have been carved out.
Access to private inholdings will always be worked out, forest officials said, although the process does involve permits and fees. When asked if the fees go back to local agencies, Padilla said not necessarily.
“The county’s policy is that impact fees must be used within a five-mile radius of where they were collected. It is more honest,” Chappell said.
The agree-to-disagree negotiations were polite, but tense. Both sides dug in their heels, with the Forest Service officials defending their scientific studies calling for more-controlled forest activities, and the commission pushing for more widespread multiple use while also challenging the agency’s scientific assertions.
Regarding watershed threats, Joni Vanderbilt, a hydrologist for the Forest Service, explained how non-system, temporary roads cause soil compaction, create runoff and erosion, and prevent critical moisture from being absorbed into the soil.
“We’re seeing long lengths of these roads becoming entrenched, and that channels water down the road, building up sediments,” Vanderbilt said. “Compaction causes more evaporation instead of sub-surface absorption which (travels underground and) bubbles up into springs,” she said.
The watershed and wildlife threats identified in the proposed travel plan are based on high road density, some on-the-ground studies, and local observation. But because of limited budgets, officials must also rely on watershed studies done in other areas, such as forests on the Front Range.
“I object to the lack of data, I don’t see sufficient data that the watershed and wildlife are threatened,” Chappell said. “I see a lot of book knowledge but not on-the-ground evidence. It seems more like a philosophy – conclusions drawn from educated guesses. We need studies that show this is happening over time, testing springs over the years to see if they are diminishing, otherwise we do not have the facts.”
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla questioned whether studies are comparable.
“There is a big difference in landscapes,” he said. “Driving on leaf litter is not the same impact as driving on, say, (cryptobiotic) soils. Do the other studies compare apples to apples?”
But forest officials stood by their conclusions.
“It is the sheer number or roads, the aggregate impact of all of them on the landscape that is an overall concern for the watershed,” Kill said. “Criss-crossing roads make animals move into areas they otherwise wouldn’t.”
Both sides agreed that there is heavy use of the forest in the fall during hunting season. Hunting camps crowd the forest, off-road driving increases, and more traffic diminishes the chances of seeing game.
“We’re seeing routes going all over, new roads that were not there two years ago. One point of travel-management plans is to halt the proliferation of roads,” Padilla said.
It was suggested that hunting fees administered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife go towards mitigating hunting impacts in the area.
Padilla stressed that no user group was given more weight in the process, rather officials looked at where negative impacts were happening on the forest and came up with a plan to reduce that.
“Our conclusions are not theory, they are based on work done on the ground. It’s also important to realize that as many appeals we have against the plan, we also have just as many supporting our plan, people saying we are doing the right thing,” he said.