It was a cautiously cordial meeting Dec. 20 in Dove Creek between two sets of local county commissioners and several San Juan National Forest officials, but at the end the parties appeared as far apart as ever on issues of forest management.
Discussion of the travel-management plan for the Boggy Draw-Glade area of the national forest, which includes portions of Montezuma and Dolores counties, dominated much of the meeting. The commissioners for both counties continued to insist the plan is too restrictive of motorized access – even though the plan was recently overturned on appeal because it allowed a higher-than-usual road density in one area.
Steve Beverlin, Dolores District Manager for the San Juan forest, said the revised Boggy-Glade travel plan should be signed and in effect by the end of January. It will be very similar to the plan that was overturned on appeal, with language added to clarify why the decision was made to exceed the national-forest guideline on road density in the particular area, he said.
“We don’t anticipate closing any more roads” to meet the density guideline, he said.
While that was good news to the county commissioners, they continued to contend that the new plan’s ban on motorized game retrieval and its proposed closure of some 62 miles of public roads will discourage hunting and harm the economies of both counties.
Beverlin explained that the 2005 Travel Management Rule adopted by the Forest Service nationwide required national forests to designate a system of motorized trails and roads, and to prohibit cross-country travel off those routes.
While unpopular with some motorized users, the cross-country travel ban is the Forest Service’s effort to deal with the explosion in ATV use nationwide and the fact that some users were causing erosion, stream damage, and scars from off-road use.
The ban on the use of motorized vehicles to retrieve game is in line with the general trend nationwide, Beverlin said.
However, Dolores County Commissioner Julie Kibel said the Forest Service did not adequately consider the economic impacts of the new policy.
“We are an economically deprived county,” she said, adding that she has heard some hunters and guides saying they won’t be back to the area if they can’t retrieve their game with ATVs.
Beverlin said specific information would be needed to document the claim of economic harm, as the Dolores Public Lands Office had done an economic analysis as part of the plan and found no major adverse effects.
“Get a record of [hunting] license sales from the Division of Wildlife,” suggested Montezuma County Commissioner Steve Chappell.
But Beverlin said the Forest Service had asked the DOW about such data, and wildlife officials said there was no change in license sales from previous years and no increase in the number of licenses turned back in the local area this year.
Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams said it might take several years for the effects to be felt, and Beverlin noted that travel-management plans are to be reviewed annually.
Chappell said the counties “would like to see from the Forest Service a little more give, because what we’re hearing from our constituents is that things are too rigid.”
“We were remanded on our [Boggy-Glade] decision because we exceeded the road-density guideline in a management area,” Beverlin said. “We heard from people that they wanted more roads, and we included them, and that’s why the plan was overturned. If we had interpreted the guidelines as rigid numbers that would mean another 20 miles of road would be closed.
“We tried to provide the opportunity the public was asking for.”
Deborah Kill, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the Dolores Public Lands Office, said the idea behind some road closures was to improve wildlife habitat. “If animals are there and the quality of the hunt is good, it’s possible you could have more people coming” in a few years, she said.
And audience member Matthew Clark of Trout Unlimited said he is a hunter and angler who has lived in Montezuma County all his life and supports the road closures. “There are a lot of hunters really happy about them,” he said.
Hunting numbers are declining nationally for many reasons, so even if numbers are down locally, it isn’t necessarily because of new restrictions on forest use, he said.
“There’s equally as many studies that show that people want to go hunting in roadless areas and wilderness, because that’s where the big bulls are,” Clark said. “There’s more than one perspective to that and I think the Forest Service has done a pretty good job.”
However, Chappell said hunting’s decline nationwide is because of the fact that most states are far more restrictive of hunting.
“Fifteen years ago I started applying for a hunting license in Arizona and never got one,” he said. “If people apply and apply and never get one, they lose interest.
“Colorado’s the only state that has opportunities for young hunters to get a tag. . . . These other states have decided to go to elite hunting and trophy-type hunting, and that has eliminated their hunters. Colorado has kept an active group because they sell [tags] over the counter.”
Dolores County’s Williams asked whether special permits could be issued for motorized game retrieval for the handicapped. Beverlin replied that the DOW already issues permits for disabled hunters and seniors.
“That’s only for hunting, not game retrieval,” Williams said.
Irvin Frasier, town supervisor of Dove Creek, said the 2005 travel rule provides for game retrieval by permit.
“You’re correct,” Beverlin said. “There is some flexibility there, but it would be rare, because it’s hard to enforce and to set the standards for how does this person get a permit over others.”
Motorized game retrieval and road closures “are huge issues to our constituents,” Kibel said. “We’re not going to hear the end of this. We need to continue working with you guys.”
Williams agreed. “Right now we see a wide gap between citizens and government,” he said. “We can tell that by just parking a county vehicle somewhere overnight. It used to be you could park it anywhere and people would protect it. It was their tax money. It’s not that way any more.”
Williams asked if there could be a trial game-retrieval area designated.
Beverlin said that was unlikely. “People over me weren’t real amenable to game retrieval,” he said. “Most plans don’t even analyze it. It’s not even included. We recognized its importance in the area by including it in the analysis of the plan.”
“I respect the fact this is the way other travel-management plans are going, but not every shoe fits,” Kibel responded.
She said big-game retrieval “is getting to be an issue to the point where I’m fearful for people’s safety.
“When I was campaigning, people didn’t want to talk to me about what I was going to do as commissioner. They just wanted to tell me they were adamant about protecting their public lands. . . .
“I want us to make a difference. I want these issues to be resolved and I want to be heard. I want to do it in a way where we’re not fighting, but come to an agreement.”
Dolores County Commissioner Doug Stowe said he wants to keep management on a local level, not national. “If we leave it up to Washington and you’ve either got to be 25 years old [to go hunting] or you don’t go, we won’t have anything left,” he said.
The commissioners and Beverlin agreed that regular meetings are helpful, and decided to have another one on Monday, Jan. 17, at 1:30 p.m., this time at the Montezuma County courthouse in the commission meeting room.