January 2013

Anger ... uh, travel management

You can’t always get what you want.

That’s a lesson most of us learn early in life. It’s particularly true in politics. Witness the recent compromise on taxes and spending that was hastily passed by Congress at the end of December. Republicans and Democrats alike had to soften some of their stances in order to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

When it comes to contentious issues, there has to be compromise in order to move forward.

But for a vocal faction of Montezuma County, compromise apparently isn’t possible, at least not on the issue of travel management in our region’s national forests.

That was made very clear at a meeting Dec. 5, when Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla and another Forest Service official, Debbie Kill, came to present the final decision on the Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan to the county commissioners. (Only Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer was actually present.)

The audience of about three dozen was hostile and rude. Shortly after Padilla began speaking, people started shouting out questions. When he attempted to answer, he was often interrupted before he could get out more than a few words. He was criticized for not being from the local area and was even asked if he believed in God. (See the full story at our web site under Dec. 2012 archives.)

In vain did the Forest Service officials try to explain that they had listened to public input and compromised on some elements in the plan. For example, they agreed to use “lighter on the land” methods of decommissioning old routes. They allowed motorized game retrieval during hunting season, a major concession that puts them in conflict with most national forests around the country. They kept open some roads they’d originally planned to close.

None of that was enough for the angry group, which responded with insults and heckling. If there were any people present who supported the Forest Service, they didn’t have the courage to speak up. No one attempted to control the meeting. No one stepped in to say, “Why don’t you let Mr. Padilla finish his sentences?” It was the “You lie!” style of public discourse in full swing.

It’s important to note that, despite the hostile tenor of the meeting, no one threatened any violence. And Sheriff Dennis Spruell did say he was disappointed by one man’s promise that people would drive where they wanted on public land in defiance of Forest Service regulations. Nevertheless, the clear intent of the folks in the crowd was influence through intimidation.

We hate to see Montezuma County travel down that path. In the past, county commissioners have chosen to work with the Forest Service and BLM on timber management, energy production and other issues, and have accomplished a great deal. But in the past couple of years, the county has started to develop a reputation as a place bristling with antipathy toward federal agencies. Fairly or unfairly, it was the subject of a 2011 article by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups. This reputation hasn’t been helped by the occasional appearance at roadsides of over-the-top signs such as one that read “Smoke feds” near the Mesa Verde exit, or one showing a Smokey Bear in a hangman’s noose, and naming an agency official, that was on a pickup truck at highway 145 and 184.

There are many disadvantages to such behavior. One is that this type of atmosphere is likely to result in constant turnover among key Forest Service and BLM staff, who understandably might want to live somewhere else.

Another is that the hostility tends to draw attention away from legitimate complaints about management of public lands. Yes, the federal agencies can be high-handed at times. Certainly their drastic methods of decommissioning old roads needed examination. And local people have every right to question the closure of routes that are important to them.

But none of that will be taken seriously if local concerns come to be regarded as nothing but the squawkings of a fringe element that wouldn’t be satisfied with anything beyond unlimited cross-country motorized travel everywhere. Some of them have called for the Forest Service to come before the county commissioners and have a full public hearing every time they want to close a road, even an old logging track. Ignoring the jurisdictional questions such an idea raises, the practice would mean the commissioners would probably have to meet three days a week to go through all those hearings.

And if nothing will satisfy local citizens, there’s no motivation for the agencies to compromise at all, because they will get criticized no matter how much they give in.

People certainly have the right to stand up for their principles and not give an inch. But there is a definite down side to refusing to compromise. Back when the Clinton administration was considering how to protect the archaeology-rich lands west of Cortez, there was talk of creating a national conservation area. Its management plan could have been crafted by local people, with great flexibility about how to handle oil and gas development, motorized travel, and more.

But locals raised a hue and cry, insisting they didn’t want any additional form of protection for the land, not even an NCA.

So President Clinton proclaimed the area a national monument instead, and it is now managed under rules much stricter than those that might have been set up through an NCA.

Sometimes compromise just makes sense.