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A fight rages in Southwest Colorado over closing forest roads
By Jim Mimiaga
A proposed travel-management plan that bans motorized big-game retrieval and closes some roads in the Boggy-Glade area of the San Juan National Forest has sparked anger and resistance in Montezuma and Dolores counties.
The controversy prompted the hasty creation of an advisory group to challenge the travel plan’s legality, as well as a movement by both counties to seek status as “coordinating counties” with the Forest Service.
“I would be for a resolution that would halt tearing up roads until RS 2477 issues are resolved,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Steve Chappell at the board’s meeting Oct. 4 after a lengthy discussion of forest travel-management issues.
However, as of press time the commissioners had not opted to adopt a resolution.
The discussion was dominated by county resident Dennis Atwater, who read a lengthy statement detailing his research on public access to federal lands.
Atwater charged that the Dolores Public Lands Office has been decommissioning roads and tearing them out without first establishing if they fall under the protection of RS 2477, a federal law from 1866 that granted a right-of-way for highways across public land. RS 2477 was repealed in 1976 under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), but valid rights-of-way that existed on the date FLPMA was adopted remain valid.
Atwater also said that counties need to seek “coordinating” status under FLPMA and that it would make them essentially equal to the Forest Service in planning.
One man in the audience of more than 40 called for Sheriff Gerald Wallace to deliver a resolution to Forest Service officials requiring them to “cease and desist” on the Boggy- Glade travel-management plan.
Wallace, however, said that while he would be willing to take the resolution, he did not believe it would be legally binding without an actual court order.
“I would be happy to deliver it, but it would not make them stop,” he said.
Commission attorney Bob Slough said he thinks too much emphasis has been placed on the meaning of the word “coordinate” in federal law. “Thinking ‘coordinate’ means you’re equal to Congress and federal land managers — do you think that is what the courts are going to decide? You have to use common sense.
“A resolution saying you’re equal to Congress is like me saying I’m the fastest runner in the world because I say so.”
Slough said, to assert claims of 2477 protection, there must be evidence to support the roads’ status or federal judges will simply rule against the counties.
Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer agreed that evidence is needed.
“We will keep those roads open if we can show they are 2477s,” he said. “But we better have some evidence if we’re going to win.”
Confusion, walk-outs, finger-pointing and name-calling – including veiled threats against the Forest Service – have predominated at several contentious meetings over the issue in recent weeks. The first meeting of the new Montezuma County Public Lands Cooperative Committee, in fact, proved so rancorous that it caused a backlash of concern about citizens’ hostility toward Forest Service personnel.
“We have had a lot of fall-out from the last meeting, so we need to have more civil discourse in this process if we are going to be effective, so please keep the dialogue respectful and courteous,” urged Dewayne Findley, chair of the 13-member committee, during the group’s second meeting on Sept. 28.
The committee was formed by the county last month to promote more local influence into Forest Service decisions and advise the commissionon federal land issues.
“We had an offer from forest officials to meet with us here tonight, but we declined so we could get more focus,” Findley said.
He then tabled the meeting agenda on travel-management for the popular Boggy- Glade region northwest of Dolores, citing lack of direction for the committee from the county commission.
The action effectively cancelled the Sept. 28 meeting and prompted 12 of the 25 members of the audience to walk out in obvious disgust.
“There was a huge misunderstanding that this committee was formed to deal with travel management,” said committee member Chris Majors.
However, Montezuma County missed the deadline to submit concerns during the official comment period for the Boggy-Glade plan and thus, under federal law, lacks standing to formally appeal the plan. However, Dolores County did submit comments challenging certain aspects of the travel-management plan and is proceeding with an appeal.
“We are outside the process and there is nothing to do but follow the [Dolores County] appeal,” Majors said.
Both sets of county commissioners are calling for more local control and input into forest management plans to secure more access to public lands for traditional uses such as grazing, hunting, firewood-gathering and logging.
Julie Kibel, Dolores County commission chair, told the Free Press the board wants more coordination early in the process with federal land agencies on public-land plans.
“We are requesting that they start the process over, because feel like we are being squeezed out of a lot of places,” Kibel said in a phone interview. “We feel that the Forest Service rushes and hurries up to get their plan through. We’re being treated like part of the public in the comment period, when they should coordinate with us earlier on in the scoping process.”
In its letter of appeal, Dolores County stated that not enough time was given to the local community to comment on the Boggy- Glade plan because “the first scheduled meeting was not noticed in the Dove Creek Press, only in the Durango Herald.”
Dolores County also is “requesting that an economic impact study be done to make the determination of significant impact in regards to the social and economic wellbeing of the citizens of Dolores and Montezuma counties,” states the appeal. Regarding proposed road closures, Dolores County wants more study on forest roads that the county alleges have RS 2477 status.
Kibel stated that of particular concern is the ban on motorized cross-country travel because she says it impairs big-game retrieval during hunting season, access to grazing permits and firewood-gathering.
“Eighty-nine percent of the letters [of comment] asked that big-game retrieval stay in place, but that was totally ignored, and to me that is not listening to the concerns of the public,” she said. “Our county is 18.9 percent unemployed, so that hunting and firewood-gathering helps people get through the winter, and I don’t want to see people lose out on that access.”
But Steve Beverlin, manager of the Dolores Public Lands Office of the San Juan National Forest, which oversees the Boggy- Glade area, said his hands are tied regarding the ban on cross-country travel.
“The Forest Service’s national travel rule, which came out in 2005, prohibits crosscountry [motorized] travel on every forest in the nation,” he said. “So I have no flexibility on that whatsoever.”
Beverlin explained that 155 miles of roads in the Boggy-Glade area are proposed for closure, but 93 miles were for administrative use only and were not open for public use anyway. The remaining 62 miles will be replaced by 63 miles of ATV roads, he said.
“To help offset the loss of those roads, we traded roads that fit a full-size pick-up to trails not wider than 50 inches for ATV access.”
He defended the plan’s proposed road closures as necessary to protect wildlife habitat and stop illegal cross-country motorized travel, and pointed out that there are still 355 miles of designated roads in the area.
“People are frustrated because 67 percent of the Boggy-Glade area is known as an ‘F’ area [under the old plan] where cross-country [travel] is OK,” but the new travel plan, if finalized, would put an end to it, Beverlin said. Getting local communities to respect road closures is a slow process, Beverlin said. In the Glade and Thomas Mountain areas near Disappointment Valley, several roads were decommissioned in 1983, but 10 years later, they were still being used, he said, so they were decommissioned again.
“Then in 1999, in cooperation with the DOW [Colorado Division of Wildlife], we installed gates to try and further enforce road closures and encourage designatedroute travel. But during the Boggy-Glade decision process, I visited all over that country and found the public was still using the decommissioned roads,” Beverlin said. “So the [Boggy-Glade] plan closes a lot of routes in that area, so now the public has to walk in and walk out in some places. Of the whole landscape [managed by the DPLO], that area is probably the biggest change.” For advocates of increased access to public lands, the combination of proposed road closures in the Boggy-Glade area, the ban on cross-country travel, and road closures in the Cortez-Mancos travel-management area have caused emotions to boil over.
On Sept. 21, at the first meeting of the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission, several outbursts by citizens were documented by the Cortez Journal, and caught the attention of Forest Service officials.
“People were quoted saying, ‘We have pitchforks and we should go tar and feather them,’ and one said, ‘Let’s get the sheriff and go arrest them’,” Beverlin said. “We took that very seriously as a potential threat against federal employees.”
The comments triggered a security protocol, Beverlin said, prompting an all-employee meeting at the Dolores Public Lands Office and meetings with the Montezuma County commissioners and others to help de-fuse the situation.
“We make sure that federal employees are respectful and courteous to the public, and they have every right to expect that same level of respect back,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Montezuma County commissioners are pushing for stronger language in a memorandum of understanding between them and the DPLO. The MOU, which expired Sept. 30, outlines a cooperative and information-sharing system between the federal land agency and the county, which is 78 percent federal public lands.
The commissioners believe replacing the word “cooperation” in the document with “coordination” will legally force the Forest Service to heed the wishes of the county regarding management of federal lands in the local area.
“Coordination is more powerful than cooperation and puts forest plans more in harmony with the county land-use plans,” said Atwater at the Sept. 28 meeting. “The Forest Service has an obligation to meet with the county and they have not done that.”
Beverlin disagreed, telling the Free Press that Forest Service officials meet regularly with the county commission regarding changes in public land management, that they forward relevant information and are always available for meetings with them.
“We routinely update the commissioners on projects across the San Juans and I have met with them face-to-face on these travelmanagement plans and the process,” he said. “We issue some 50 decisions on projects per year, so it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what they are interested in, but they are notified and we rely on them to say what they are interested in.”
He said the DPLO did receive a letter from Montezuma County requesting jurisdiction of the Dolores-Norwood road for snow-removal, “but they did not comment on anything else.”
The move for counties to seek “coordinating” status has gained momentum in the area, with San Juan County, Utah, also reportedly interested in obtaining such status, which county commissioners in the region hope will grant them greater standing in the eyes of federal land agencies.
Beverlin said he is certainly willing to have more communication with Dolores and Montezuma counties.
“We need the dialogue, because everybody has a favorite way of enjoying the forest and they want that particular interest preserved,” Beverlin said. “Right now people are focusing on disagreement and conflict, and I can understand that, and if it takes the Forest Service and BLM meeting with the commissioners once a month to discuss all the projects we are doing and ask them if they want to put together a subcommittee or need more information, then I am happy to do that.”
He repeated that message at an appeals hearing for the Boggy-Glade decision that was held in Dove Creek the afternoon of Oct. 4, following the discussion of the Montezuma County that morning.
The appeals hearing included Forest Service officials and representatives of the parties appealing the Boggy decision, including Dove Creek, Dolores County, the Dove Creek Chamber, and the Dolores County Development Corp. Those parties repeatedly pressed Beverlin to say he would remand the travel-management decision, but he declined. “I’m not inclined to do so because I think it was a good decision,” he said.
He also declined to rescind the ban on motorized big-game retrieval, saying it was in line with the trend in forests nationwide.
Commissioner Kibel asked how Forest Service officials know they aren’t decommissioning RS 2477 roads. Beverlin said their policy is “that counties come forward to us and we evaluate those [assertions] on a claim-by-claim basis.” No claims have been made on Dolores Public Lands, he said.
Commissioner Doug Stowe said the counties would like more input into forest planning at the front end. “Governmentto- government meetings are more helpful at the start of the process,” Stowe said, “so we can better represent our constituents’ concerns. We feel like our opinions don’t count because they are at the end of the process instead of the beginning.”
Dolores County officials said the travel restrictions might mean fewer hunters and thus less money for the area, but Beverlin said the removal of some roads should improve elk habitat and increase herd size.
The hearing was to try to resolve issues before moving forward with the appeal. The appeal will now be decided by higher-level Forest Service officials and a final decision is expected by Dec. 6.