A twist in the controversy over travel management

A county crusade against a plan to close some roads on national-forest lands north and west of Dolores stalled last month when several appeals demanding greater motorized access were officially denied while one appeal seeking to reduce road density was upheld.

The successful appeal by Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group advocating for improved wildlife habitat, means the Boggy-Glade travel-management plan of the San Juan National Forest has been overturned.

The Forest Service considered appeals from seven entities regarding the travel plan, which was approved by Dolores District Ranger Steve Beverlin in August.

Appeals came from the Dolores County Commission, the Dolores County Development Corp., the Town of Dove Creek, the Dove Creek Chamber of Commerce, and two individuals, in addition to the successful appeal.

Appeals can be made only by entities that submitted comments during the original public-comment period. Montezuma County did not meet the deadline to give comments, but sent a letter of support for Dolores County’s appeal, based on the belief that the counties would sustain economic hardships from the closure of roads used for hunting, firewood-gathering and other purposes by locals.

The issue of motorized access in the national forest has been hotly debated during packed Montezuma and Dolores commission meetings recently. There have been veiled threats against public-land agencies, increased vandalism of forest signs, theft of gates, and heated exchanges between the public and government officials, all highlighting the passions surrounding publiclands access.

Under the plan, 155 miles of roads were proposed for closure, but 93 miles were for administrative use only and were not open for public use anyway, Beverlin has said. The remaining 62 miles were to be replaced by 63 miles of ATV roads, he said.

The plan also banned cross-country motorized game retrieval in keeping with a similar trend on forests nationwide.

San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles upheld the plan on all points raised in six of the appeals, but in a Nov. 12 decision letter, Stiles stated that two of nine points in the other warranted a reversal.

“My decision is to reverse the decision in whole based on . . .appeal points one and two,” Stiles wrote.

Bob Marion, a volunteer “forest watcher” for the group that filed the justified appeal, did so in part because road densities in the new travel plan exceed thresholds established in the San Juan National Forest’s recently revised Resource Management Plan to protect big-game habitat.

Those directives state that road density should be “moderate” and not exceed onehalf to one mile per square mile of constant roads, yet 40 percent of the travel-management plan area went over that limit, according to the appeal.

“Our interests are really wildlife and wildlife habitat and I don’t think the decision adequately addressed those needs,” Marion told the Free Press.

“Elk need protected areas that are welldefined and a substantial distance from motorized roads. I think the science is clear that road density excludes elk because they have less and less areas where they can go and not be disturbed.”

The travel plan put road density at 1.13 miles/square mile, or 0.13 over the maximum allowable range (equal to 19.9 miles of road) in the MA6B management area. The area covers 40 percent of the 245,800 acres in the travel plan, according to the appeal.

Marion disagreed with the travel plan’s statement that the excess amount “is negligible.”

“This is a large variation from the prescribed density. Twenty miles of road in the MA6B area is far from negligible and amounts to a violation of the existing Forest Plan,” the appeal states, which requests a decrease in the number of miles of roads to comply with the forest plan.

Studies from the Colorado Division of Wildlife support the claim of too many roads, according to the appeal. In a response to a draft management plan from 2009, the DOW stated that several roads in the Boggy- Glade area “parallel each other, are short, have no specific destination and branch out or spider web onto abandoned railroad grades, logging and fire roads, bisecting large areas of the forest, making them less valuable for wildlife.”

The second appeal point upheld by Stiles involved inconsistency with the overall forest plan regarding winter closure of trailheads to protect elk habitat.

Certain areas north and east of the Bradfield Bridge and west of Narraguinnep Canyon, including roads FR 504 and FR 504E, should be closed to winter motorized use to be consistent with the San Juan National Forest management plan, but are not, according to the appeal.

The area is important winter range for game and deserves protection from motorized use, according to the appeal. The Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers group is concerned that a lack of winter refuge is a limiting factor for elk in the Boggy- Glade area and pushes them onto private land.

“The DOW has clear evidence that the elk come down to these areas in the winter, but instead of using the Boggy-Glade area as winter habitat they cross the river and move right through it because of the disturbance due to motorized traffic,” Marion said. “This becomes a financial issue because the elk go from public land to private land around Dove Creek, where they eat feed intended for livestock.”

The Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan now sits in a bureaucratic limbo and cannot be implemented. The agency can put out a revised edition, or conduct another environmental assessment and then submit a new decision based on that, all subject to appeal.

In the meantime, wildlife in the area can only react to the conditions, positive or negative, established by managers and users of public lands.

“To me this discussion is not pro or con motorized use. I think that is phrasing it the wrong way,” Marion said. “It is an issue of protecting wildlife habitat that the forest plan specifies, because the elk cannot speak for themselves. People will come back to hunt here and maybe more so because the hunting experience will be better.”

Another travel-management plan, for the Rico area, was likewise overturned on appeal in December 2009 and is awaiting revision. That one was also overturned on the basis of complaints about too much motorized access.

From December 2010.