April 2012

Why public lands access is crucial

By Casey McClellan

CASEY MCCLELLANI have great memories of growing up in Southwest Colorado. My family spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking, cutting firewood, skiing, four-wheeling and riding motorcycles on public lands. That is what most families did and life was great.

I moved to Denver in 1983 because opportunities for local employment were slim for a geologist, fresh out of college. After a 20-year career in aerospace, my young children were my motivation to leave Denver. My wife and I wanted them to grow up around family, in a small community where the kids could experience the freedom I had while growing up. We returned to the area in 2004, but it wasn’t long before the sense of freedom I once had started to diminish. It began when the Forest Service’s Travel Management Final Rule was released in 2005.

I believe in the fair, balanced and multiple use of our public lands and natural resources. I also believe that public-land use decisions must be made locally because no one understands the necessity of public lands better than the local community that depends on them. There are not a lot of issues that affect our community in as many ways as public-lands issues.

Natural resources are critical to our local economy. Oil, gas and CO2 development, logging, ranching, mining, tourism, hunting and outfitting rely heavily on access to public lands. Numerous other user groups such as OHV users, mountain-bikers, hikers, campers and firewood-gatherers depend on it for recreational purposes. All these uses contribute significantly to Montezuma County and local businesses through job creation, oil and gas royalties, manufacturing of wood products, sale of livestock, property tax, sales tax, severance tax, hotel/motel use, fuel purchases, license purchases, guns and ammo, sporting goods, OHV purchases, mountain-bike purchases, restaurant use and more.

One-third of county land is public, one-third is tribal and one-third is privately owned. The potential impact of losing access to public lands is significant when you consider the positive impacts public lands have on the county. Currently 49 percent of county revenue comes from oil, gas and CO2-related property tax and severance tax distributions. The majority of those come from Kinder Morgan and the majority of their operations are on public lands. If the county doesn’t get the revenues from oil, gas, CO2 or other natural resources then private property taxes carry the burden.

Once public lands become wilderness, roadless, wild and scenic rivers, limited or protected in some way, we lose the ability to benefit from them economically or use them freely as individuals. When does government return what has been taken away? Are restrictive/protective decisions ever reversed? Using our public lands does not mean destroying them and the San Juan National Forest is in no danger of being destroyed. The best stewards of the land are those that make a living off of it. Most of those industries using public lands are highly regulated and the operators would not jeopardize their livelihood by being careless.

Locally coordinated, balanced and multiple use of our public lands shouldn’t be too much to ask for. This is already clearly spelled out in the Travel Management Final Rule and fully considered in the Montezuma County Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The Travel Management Final Rule, dated Nov. 9, 2005, gives district rangers a great deal of flexibility. The document states:

 “Nothing in this final rule requires reconsideration of any previous administrative decisions that allow, restrict, or prohibit motor vehicle use on NFS roads and NFS trails or in areas on NFS lands and that were made under other authorities, including decisions made in land management plans and travel plans.”

In other words, a district ranger is not required to make any travel-management changes. However, that is not how the Forest Service is interpreting the rule. How many different ways can this statement possibly be interpreted? It’s equivalent to misinterpreting a 65-mph speed limit sign.

The Final Rule also states:

“National Forests are managed by law for multiple use. They are managed not only for the purposes stated in these comments, but for timber, grazing, mining, and outdoor recreation. These uses must be balanced, rather than one given preference over another.” 

Looking back on the Mancos-Cortez and Rico-West Dolores decisions (Rico-West Dolores is currently under appeal), those TMAs were only balanced before any decisions were made in those areas and have since become very unbalanced. The Boggy Draw-Glade TMA is shaping up to be the most unbalanced to date.

Regarding local involvement in the process, the Final Rule states:

 “…the rule retains flexibility at the local level, to determine, with public involvement, appropriate motor vehicle use on NFS roads, on NFS trails, and in areas on NFS lands. The department believes that decisions about specific routes and areas are best made by local officials with knowledge of those routes and areas, the local environment, and site-specific tradeoffs, with public involvement and in coordination with appropriate Federal, State, local and Tribal governments.”

Over and over the Final Rule states that these decisions should be made “locally.”

The local Forest Service and BLM personnel are good people, just as vested in the community as the rest of us. The Dolores District Office isn’t the roadblock because they are not making the decisions. No doubt they understand the Final Rule. They just are not allowed to comply with it. These decisions are being pushed by the Chief of the Forest Service (D.C.), the Regional Forester (Denver) and the Forest Supervisor (Durango). If the Dolores District Ranger was allowed to make decisions that reflect the concerns of the local community, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in right now.

The disregard of the rules by D.C., Denver and Durango violate the Final Rule which requires decisions be non-preferential, balanced, multiple use and made locally through coordinated efforts. The agenda pushed down from higher levels does not match our local needs and prevents the Dolores office from making decisions appropriate for this area based on local input. One size doesn’t fit all.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a Congressional Subcommittee hearing held in Elko, Nev., entitled, “Explosion of Federal Regulations Threatening Jobs and Economic Survival in the West.” The House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands heard testimony for five hours. Those testifying included the Regional Forester for the Intermountain Region, the executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties, chair of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, and county commissioners and multiple-use advocates from all over the West. Also providing testimony were a Dolores County commissioner, the town manager of Dove Creek and the chairman of the Southwest Public Lands Coalition.

Congressional Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (Utah) said, “National forests are an important and necessary source of economic activity and recreation for local communities and the public. This vital resource needs to be managed for the benefit of all users.”

We live in a slow-growth area where you don’t get huge crowds from metropolitan areas traveling here every weekend. Per U.S. Census records, while Montezuma County grew by 15,544 residents since 1950, Dolores County grew by only 98 residents over that period. Overpopulation of Southwest Colorado doesn’t appear to be an imminent threat. On the other hand, many (but not all) the Front Range counties combined grew by 2.7 million people over that same period! Would it be more appropriate to make these types of travel-management recommendations along Colorado’s Front Range forests? Maybe, although it would actually make more sense to create more user-group opportunities because of increased resource demands. Opportunities should increase with increased demand, not be pinched down, putting more pressure on fewer “designated” routes.

Over the past several years I have developed a good working relationship with local USFS and BLM employees. My company has been involved with projects in the San Juan National Forest including road construction, stock-pond construction, construction and maintenance of OHV trails and installation of seasonal road-closure gates. And, no, my company has not ripped up or otherwise obliterated any roads in the SJNF.

I’ve been asked what I would do if I had to make a decision that might impact the work my company does with the USFS, and I would gladly give up any work I had on public lands to ensure that future generations had complete use of those lands just as our area residents have enjoyed for more than 100 years. I have been outspoken against the closure of motorized routes, submitting formal travel-management comments in 2006, 2009 and 2011. I am the vice-chairman of the Southwest Public Lands Coalition, formed to look out for everyone’s interests in public lands. I am also an alternate on the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission.

The Travel Management Final Rule clearly and adequately spells out how travel-management issues should be addressed; however, the rule is not being followed. The use of public lands should be non-preferential, balanced and multiple-use. Decisions that affect us locally should be made locally, with local public, local government and local tribal input. Our natural resources are critical to our local economy and their use depends heavily on access to public lands. Numerous recreational user groups also rely on public-land access and have a positive impact on our local economy as well as our personal well-being. Anyone is welcome to call me with any concerns or thoughts at 970-570-1776.

Casey McClellan is a Republican candidate for Montezuma County commissioner in District 3.