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Not-so-happy trails? A proposed travel plan for the Mancos-Cortez area draws diametrically opposed comments
By Gail Binkly
How should trails and travel be managed on public lands in the Mancos- Cortez area? The public has plenty of answers — many of them diametrically opposed.
That much is clear from comments received on a proposal regarding travel management for one segment of the Mancos-Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest, according to Penny Wu, recreation planner for San Juan Public Lands.
“There was support and opposition to all components of the plan,” Wu said. “We got a lot of comments locally, which is great.”
The travel-management proposal was for national-forest lands around Mancos, such as Echo Basin, the Transfer area, and Haycamp Mesa, as well as BLM lands known as Phil’s World, east of Cortez and Sam’s World (Mud Springs) southwest of Cortez.
It considered issues such as where motorized uses should be allowed, which user-created trails should be adopted into the public-lands system, and how to handle dispersed camping.
Not surprisingly, the majority of comments were about motorized uses. “It’s safe to say that the comments were right down the middle on that,” she said.
Motorized recreation has emerged as an enormously contentious issue. The number of people buying ATVs, motorcycles and dirt bikes has soared, and many of them look to public lands to provide them a place to ride.
However, the number of hikers and mountain-bikers is also increasing, and many of them complain that motorized devices are noisy and intrusive, as well as damaging to trails.
The Mancos-Cortez Travel Management Plan is the first effort by land managers within the Mancos- Dolores District of the San Juan Public Lands (which include both nationalforest and BLM lands) to create a new plan delineating where motorized users can go.
Among other things, the plan proposes:
• Prohibiting ATV and motorcycle use on the first four miles of the West Mancos Road (NFSR #561) unless they are legally registered for highway use.
• Building a new motorized trail paralleling the West Mancos Road to provide ATVs and motorcycles with a safe alternative to using the road.
• Authorizing motorcycles, but not ATVs, on the following single-track trails: Box Canyon, Chicken Creek, Coyote Park, Rim, and Transfer Trail.
• Decommissioning Joe Moore Road (NFSR 236) and converting it to the Little Bauer Loop Trail, where ATVs and motorcycles would be allowed.
• Decommissioning Millwood L Road (NFSR 559L) and closing the halfmile road to motorized use.
• Authorizing ATVs and motorcycles on the Morrison and West Mancos trails, but restricting motorized use on various segments to be decided later.
The agency also proposed designating a mile-long connector link for ATVs and motorcycles from the Aspen Loop Trail to the Echo Basin area.
East of Cortez on BLM land, the popular mountain-bike trail known as “Phil’s World” and Stinking Springs Trail would be designated as nonmotorized. Chutes and Ladders, located off County Road 34, would also be a non-motorized route. In the Mud Springs area on BLM lands southwest of Cortez, “Sam’s Trail” would become a non-motorized route.
The plan generated considerable interest.
In press releases and e-mails to supporters, the Blue Ribbon Coalition and Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, pro-motorized user groups, called the plan “a serious threat to single- track motorized recreation in the San Juan National Forest.”
Valerie Douglas of the Colorado Off- Highway Vehicle Coalition e-mailed supporters that, while the Mancos/ Dolores District “has, by and large, been good to work with,” the travel plan was a disappointment because it didn’t incorporate many user-created trails into the system.
Douglas called for “a strong letterwriting campaign” to alter the plan. “Without it, the proposal will surely be approved and the San Juan Alliance, Friends of the Forest and Sierra Club will chalk up another win in the elimination of our recreation on Public Lands. Fellow single-track riders and others, rest assured that this is only a glimpse of even further attempted reductions / eliminations on the next block of study, the Rico District.
“Special-interest groups are already preparing to heavily influence the elimination of motorized travel in the high country. These will be trails that motorized recreational people like ourselves have maintained and ridden for 40-plus years,” she wrote.
By the May 29 deadline, the Dolores Public Lands Office had received approximately 247 comments regarding various aspects of the proposal, about 100 of those via e-mail and the rest as letters, Wu said. All have been reviewed and will be considered in preparing the final plan.
A draft environmental assessment on the travel-management proposal is due in early to mid-September, Wu said. That will be followed by a 90-day comment period before the agency issues its final decision.
She said the agency received input from “a full range of user groups and individuals” with widely differing views.
“Some said there were already too many routes in place, and some said there should be more,” she commented. “Some said mixed use on trails was OK; some wanted to separate uses.
“We know we’re not going to please everyone, not every user group or type of user, but we will try to figure out what is a balanced mix of motorized and non-motorized trail uses.”
She said many of the comments concerned trails around the Transfer Campground area, northeast of Mancos.
There was also a great deal of interest in user-created trails throughout the Mancos-Cortez area that are not currently in the official system. “We’re trying to see whether any of those make sense to add to our transportation plan,” Wu said.
By far, most of the feedback centered on trails and trail use, she added, rather than dispersed camping and use of roads, which are also being addressed in the proposal.
The travel-management plan is separate from the San Juan National Forest and San Juan Resource Area (BLM) land-management plan, which is due to be released, at least in electronic form, in late September or early October. It’s also distinct from the management plan for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, due in September.
The travel-management plan adheres to a 2005 Forest Service rule mandating that national forests across the country identify routes for motorized uses on roads and trails by the end of 2009.
Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth famously said that unmanaged recreation, including the use of off-highway vehicles, was one of the top four threats to the health of national forests.
Because the San Juan National Forest and local BLM lands operate under a Service First arrangement, meaning that they combine management wherever possible to operate more efficiently, BLM lands are being incorporated into the local travel-management plan even though the directive came from the Forest Service.
The travel-management plan for the Mancos-Dolores District of San Juan Public Lands will involve about 600,000 acres of national forest and about 6,000 acres of BLM lands, Wu said. Wilderness study areas will not be included.
The district has been divided into five areas. The Mancos-Cortez area is the first to have a plan developed. Next, agency officials will turn to the West Dolores-Rico area, Wu said.
“From some of the issues and the comments we’ve received already [regarding that area] from community study groups and trail users, we feel it’s important to move into that area and address those issues,” Wu said. “There are some mixed-use trails we have in the Rico area that are ripe for a transportation-planning decision.”
After that, plans will be developed for the McPhee-Boggy Draw, Glade- Disappointment Creek, and Dry Creek- Gypsum Valley areas, she said.
“Even though we’re on a tight time frame we believe we’re going to meet the 2009 deadline,” she said.
Wu thanked the public for its interest in the planning effort.
“We appreciate everyone’s comments, and we will consider all of them in developing the plan,” she said.