The Forest Service switches gears on motorized game retrieval

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After months of furor and fury over a proposed travel-management plan for the Boggy-Glade area of the San Juan National Forest, agency officials have made changes designed to respond to public concerns and appease critics.

However, the controversy seems far from over, and reaction to the new proposal has been mixed.


Citizens protest proposed road closures and other Forest Service actions at a march in February. Photo by David Grant Long

The biggest change in the new “preferred alternative” for the Boggy-Glade travel plan is a proposal to allow hunters to use ATVs off-road to retrieve big-game carcasses. Previously, the agency had sought to end motorized game retrieval to keep the Dolores Ranger District in line with policies being adopted by the Forest Service nationwide and regionally.

However, curtailing game retrieval proved to be one of the most contentious ideas in the draft travel plan. Many locals said it would be hard on people who couldn’t pack out their game on foot and that it would prompt out-of-state hunters to quit coming to the area.

The agency’s willingness to abandon that policy seemed to please the Montezuma County commissioners when they heard about it from officials who came to the board’s Oct. 17 meeting. Commissioners Steve Chappell and Gerald Koppenhafer appeared happy with the changes. (Larrie Rule was absent because of knee surgery.)

“I really think this shows a positive step by the Forest Service to coordinate and cooperate with local governments and communities and decide what is best for the area,” said Chappell.

Acting Dolores District Ranger Mark Lambert, BLM resource specialist Tom Rice, and NEPA coordinator Deborah Kill said they had taken many of the suggestions sent them by the Montezuma County commission in a July 18 letter.

For instance, the commissioners had suggested allowing motorized game retrieval in the parts of the Boggy-Glade area designated as “F” areas in the old plan, meaning they were open to cross-country motorized use. Though cross-country motorized travel on national forests is ending, Dolores District officials took the suggestion to allow it for the sole purpose of game retrieval during hunting season (mid-August through mid-November) in those specific areas.

Big-game retrieval using ATVs no more than 50 inches in width would be allowed up to one mile from designated motorized routes in authorized portions of the Boggy area. Hunters would have to carry a validated carcass tag.

The practice would be allowed for five years, after which time it would be re-evaluated to see whether it was causing resource damage, the officials said.

In proposing this, the Dolores Public Lands Office is “going against the consistency recommendations of Region 2,” Lambert told the board. Region 2 encompasses national forests and grasslands in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“Allowing game retrieval does not follow consistency,” Kill echoed. “We’re making a case that the combined factors in Boggy- Glade make it a place where we would like to deviate from that consistent message from the regional office.”

“I think it’s real good and appropriate to take this action,” Chappell said. “I know it’s putting you out on a limb, but I think the hunters and outfitters in this area depend a lot on that game. I think this is what the public wants, to keep the traditions of their hunting and game retrieval.”

James Dietrich, county federal-lands coordinator, told the Free Press that members of the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission had likewise seemed receptive to the changes when told about them recently.

“I didn’t hear any negative comments,” he said. “A lot of them were saying, ‘This is good — they’ve really coordinated with us and responded to our concerns’.”

Boiling point

An earlier version of the travel plan for the popular Boggy Draw-Glade area northwest of the town of Dolores was adopted in 2010. It drew widespread criticism from local residents as well as the Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners. The plan proposed closing 62 miles of public roads – mostly two-track dirt roads and user- created routes. It would have created 63 miles of new ATV roads as well. However, the proposed closures and the end of crosscountry motorized travel prompted outrage.

The plan was appealed by seven parties and was overturned by San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles. Ironically, however, the appeal that was upheld was based mainly on the fact that road densities in the new plan were too high, exceeding thresholds established in the forest’s recently revised draft Resource Management Plan.

The controversy boiled for months, prompting a protest march in February of this year in which approximately 100 people walked a quarter-mile to the Dolores Public Lands Office carrying signs calling for more road access.

Other protesters parked trucks covered in anti- Forest Service signs at key intersections in Cortez and Dolores off and on for weeks.

Tensions bubbled over when a local resident loudly confronted one such protester in Cortez, swearing at him during the angry exchange. He was cited for disturbing the peace, but was acquitted by a municipal judge on free-speech grounds.

The Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners appointed publiclands coordination commissions to look into road issues. Some of the most vociferous critics of the Forest Service accused the Montezuma County commissioners of being timid for trying to work things out with the agency.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell, sympathetic to the critics, said more than once that he might have to cite or arrest Forest Service officials if they tried to close roads in a manner he considered contrary to state or county law.

Publicity over the fracas attracted the attention of the non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors domestic terrorism; the center published a report that labeled the situation “a part of the second wave of the anti-government ‘Patriot’ movement that roiled America and spawned much violence in the 1990s.”

More roads; a new trail

After the Boggy travel plan was overturned, the Dolores Public Lands Office took a new round of public comment and developed a revised environmental assessment, which was released on Oct. 24.

In addition to the policy regarding game retrieval, changes in the new preferred alternative included:

• Twenty more miles of motorized routes would be provided, for a total of 379 miles of open roads.

• The overall management plan for the San Juan National Forest would be amended to increase the permitted road density from 1 mile to 1.2 miles per square mile.

• As a boon to hikers and bikers, a new non-motorized trail would be created between Dolores and House Creek.

• The agency would consider using lessdrastic methods of decommissioning old roads. In the past, the agency had bulldozed closed roads and built enormous berms across them, making them hard to navigate even by foot, something that Sheriff Spruell said had prompted his outrage over the policies.

“We have created a decision tree of things the implementers can consider as they decide what method would be the best for decommissioning,” Kill told the county commissioners. “Keeping all those tools in the toolbox but making efforts not to use the heaviest type of work unless absolutely necessary.”

The comment period ends Nov. 23, after which time the agency will decide whether to adopt its preferred alternative and will issue a final decision.

‘Poorly thought out’

But if the county commissioners found the Forest Service’s concessions a welcome development, not everyone agreed. Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local environmental non-profit, called the agency’s new preferred alternative “an incredible surprise” and said the reversal on motorized game retrieval was “poorly thought out.”

First, he said, the policy ignores guidance from Forest Service leadership.

In 2005, the Forest Service adopted a nationwide travel-management rule that requires individual forests to specifically identify which roads and trails are open to motor-vehicle use. Travel off those designated routes was to be banned.

The 2005 rule did allow forests to name corridors where “the limited use of motor vehicles within a specified distance of certain designated routes” could be allowed for vehicle-assisted dispersed camping or big-game retrieval. But in 2006, then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth issued a directive saying that, “Such designations represent site-specific decisions associated with specific roads and trails or road or trail segments, rather than a blanket exception to the rule” and that such designations “will be applied sparingly to avoid undermining the purposes of the rule and to promote consistency in implementation.”

And in April 2007, Region 2 sent out a letter to forest supervisors that said, “Over time, the long term goal for the Rocky Mountain Region’s forests. . . will be to strive towards designating individual spur routes or dispersed camping sites” rather than having broad areas with exceptions to the ban on cross-country motorized use.

Buickerood said this makes it clear that off-route motorized travel is to be allowed only in very narrow circumstances.

“The Forest Service is moving to a protocol where everything is closed [to motorized travel] except where marked open. This is a complete reversal of that. There will be dozens of square miles that will be open without being posted. This is very confusing to the public.”

If motorized travel is allowed one mile from all the roads in the Boggy-Glade area, almost the entire landscape would be open to ATVs, he said. (According to Lambert, two-thirds of the landscape would be open.)

“There are very, very few areas , just a few square miles across the whole landscape, that are not reachable by one road or other,” Buickerood said.

He said making sure that only hunters are going off-road will be very difficult.

“I’m already hearing from other Forest Service employees in other parts of the forests that they cannot believe this decision that the Dolores District is rolling out.

“The reality is that the forest has difficulty right now enforcing regulations regarding off-road travel and this will only exacerbate the problem.”

He also said the change “flies in the face of the recommendations of the agencies’ own biologists” regarding the harmful effects of motorized use on wildlife habitat.

“Why they would choose to do something that would be non-consistent with the other forests in the region, that is both confusing to the public and contrary to the management protocol and damaging to wildlife and watersheds – I can’t imagine,” Buickerood said.

He said the claim that motorized game retrieval is needed to maintain hunting traditions is absurd, since generations of hunters harvested animals without vehicles.

“I’ve talked to a number of people, including leaders of the older generation of Montezuma County, who say, ‘My dad told me when he took me hunting as a child not to ever shoot an animal where you can’t get it back to the road or back to the horse.’

“The reality is, hunters for decades retrieved their game without any motorized use. Game retrieval by vehicle is not a traditional activity – it’s only a couple decades old.“

Help with enforcement

At their meeting with the county commissioners Oct. 17, forest officials called on the county to help them educate the public and enforce the regulations.

“We are going to heavily rely on help through education and patrolling and some enforcement,” Lambert told the board. “Based on past experience, we know there are some compliance issues. . . . We are looking at this on a trial basis and we want to review it again in five years.”

Kill said the officials would like to continue meeting with the commissioners or with the Public Lands Coordination Commission to talk about education, flyers, and monitoring.

Rice said each year the Dolores Public Lands Office contributes a limited amount of funding to the sheriff ’s office for help with patrolling, “so this is an opportunity for them to help.”

“I think they will take that on,” Chappell said.

However, Buickerood told the Free Press he is skeptical about how well the policy could be enforced. “In his public statements Sheriff Spruell has indicated that he might very well not enforce Forest Service road closures, so one has to ask, ‘Why would the Sheriff now step forward to help the Forest Service to enforce illegal motorized game retrieval?’ It seems very unlikely that the Forest Service can count on the sheriff ’s assistance should they decide to sanction motorized game retrieval.”

Spruell could not be reached for comment, but Undersheriff Robin Cronk said the sheriff ’s office would not be enforcing things such as violations of rules about motorized use.

“That’s probably not going to happen,” Cronk said. “That’s their job, not ours. When it comes to Forest Service and BLM and DOW [Division of Wildlife] laws, we won’t be enforcing those and stepping on their toes and doing their job.”

The sheriff ’s office does help with forest patrols to look for violations of state and county laws, such as drunk driving, he said. Not the norm

In an interview with the Free Press, Lambert said the means of enforcement and education are still developing. Agency officials have met with the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission and the Dolores County commissioners to brainstorm ideas.

“We need that help,” he said. “It’s not like we’re saying, ‘If you don’t help we’re not going to do it.’ It’s more, ‘If we don’t get your help we don’t think it’s going to work’.” Lamber said, however, he would welcome any help that might be offered through either the Montezuma or Dolores County sheriff ’s office.

“But if it doesn’t make sense for some reason, we don’t want to foist that on them. We’re just going to put it on the table as something to look into.”

Lambert said he doesn’t know how many forests nationwide allow motorized game retrieval, but within Region 2, there is one that does – the Rio Grande National Forest in south-central Colorado.

The Kaibab National Forest in Arizona (not in Region 2) also allows game retrieval up to a mile off designated routes, and Lambert said he believes it is being contemplated in some other forests in Arizona and New Mexico.

Lambert has only been acting district ranger since Sept. 26. However, he said he was involved in developing the Boggy plan through his previous position with the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango and worked closely with the previous acting Dolores District ranger, Connie Clementson.

The plan “was discussed quite a bit over the past several months by the ID [interdisciplinary] team and at various different levels,” he said. “It’s certainly something that we’ve talked about on a forest level and [Forest Supervisor] Mark Stiles is aware of it and is in support of this office in going forward with this.”

Dave Dyer, forest planner with the Rio Grande National Forest, said that forest has not finished a complete overhaul of its travel plan because of budget constraints. Until it does, motorized game retrieval will remain in place there.

“We are currently not looking at abandoning our motorized game retrieval. It will probably be in place until the plan revision or a full-scale travel plan,” Dyer said.

“We very much have a motorized community that wants to use the forest, as well as the other side – the quiet-use folks, who don’t want motorized – so we’re dealing with that on a case-by-case basis until budgets improve.”

Big-game retrieval is allowed in most places where there are authorized motorized travelways, Dyer said. Game retrieval is permitted up to 300 yards off the motorized routes during hunting season, only in the afternoon. (The Dolores District did not set time-of-day restrictions.) Motorized retrieval is the exception rather than the rule nationwide, Dyer said.

“There’s not a lot of forests anywhere in the country that authorize it,” he said

A question of liberty

Bud Garner, who was emcee of the local chapter of the 9-12 Project and Tea Party until he quit recently to run for county commissioner in 2012, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Forest Service.

He called big-game retrieval a “minor issue” and told the Free Press he has larger concerns with Forest Service policy.

“My big issue, as you well know, is liberty, and I see no liberty in the federal government disobeying the Constitution.” He maintains the federal government is not authorized by the Constitution to own vast tracts of public land, and the existence of national forests is thus unconstitutional.

“They should not even exist – the organization, I mean – the Forest Service.

“We’re not going to solve the constitutional problem over a little kerfuffle over big-game retrieval. The problems still exist.”

Garner also points to state statutes concerning highways that say that “all roads of the public domain, whether agricultural or mineral” are public highways and that anyone other than municipal or county officials who tries to close them is guilty of a misdemeanor.

“They’re not obeying state law,” he said of the Forest Service. “I think they are trying to portray themselves as having come around, but they still have an attitude, and it’s institutional – it’s not this individual or that – that the federal government is the end-all and be-all of everything.”

However, Garner added, “If big-game retrieval is your issue, it looks like the Forest Service did make some movement on that.”

Another opportunity

Lambert emphasized that the new gameretrieval policy is only for the Boggy-Glade area. “It doesn’t mean we will be proposing it for other places. It doesn’t mean that we won’t, either, but it is an issue that we looked at specifically for this area, considering the issues on the ground and bringing into account support from the counties in helping us implement this.

“We want to talk with the public and the counties and other constituencies on how we monitor the use to see if it’s working or not. If we’re seeing rampant abuse and non-compliance, that will fit into future decisions on whether to continue this or not.”

Lambert said the office is looking forward to hearing comments on the new proposal. “We have made some significant changes since the last one and we want constructive feedback on what we’re now proposing.”

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From November 2011.