Note from Sharon: as always, different perspectives are welcome in the comments.
Coloradans are blessed with an abundance of public lands in our state, and we enjoy engaging in numerous forms of recreation in our National Forests. From hiking and camping to hunting, fishing, rock climbing, and off-roading, one thing common to all forms of recreation is that they typically involve traveling on Forest Service roads to get there.
While most people give little thought to the roads they travel and consider them an immutable fact of the landscape, few would guess that their very existence is one of the most controversial
arenas of environmental politics. Now we are in the midst of a public process that could have profound implications for every user of public lands in south central Colorado.
On September 19, 2019 the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Pike San Isabel (PSI) National Forest Travel Management Analysis was released, commencing a 45 day comment period that runs until November 4. This document represents the culmination of a long and contentious process that will decide whether or not to close hundreds of miles of roads to the public or leave them open for future generations to enjoy.
In 2005, the US Forest Service adopted a new Travel Management Rule which overturned decades of management practice for Forest Service roads. Under the new rule, only routes specifically designated on official Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) would be open to motorized travel by cars, four-wheel-drives, ATVs, dirt bikes, etc. Previously routes had been presumed open unless designated and signed as closed. The new rule was devastating to motorized recreation in National Forests, with some forests closing upwards of 90% of existing routes in the process of implementing it. Between 2007 and 2010, the Pike San Isabel National Forest completed its initial round of route designation and published MVUMs for its six ranger districts.
In 2011, five environmental groups including the Wilderness Society, Quiet Use Coalition, Wild Earth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service alleging that the PSI improperly added 500 miles of motorized routes to the MVUMs without conducting a proper environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Many of these routes pre-dated the 1984 Forest Plan or were lawfully created during the time when the Forest was managed as open to cross country travel, and were grandfathered in without specific analysis. If the Plaintiffs’ challenge was upheld, it could have called into question every other travel plan that similarly grandfathered routes.
Motorized advocacy groups including the Colorado OHV Coalition, Trails Preservation Alliance, and Blue Ribbon Coalition intervened in the lawsuit in order to defend off-road vehicle trails that had long been enjoyed by their members. In 2015 the lawsuit ended in a settlement agreement where the Forest Service agreed to conduct a new travel management process and environmental analysis for every motorized route in the PSI. After a scoping period in 2016 and three years of internal analysis, the Forest Service published the DEIS in September. It includes five alternatives labeled A – E, which would close between 3% and 50% of all existing motorized routes in the PSI. The final plan adopted by the Forest Service will be a combination of these alternatives in a modified Alternative C (the Preferred Alternative), with changes made in response to public comments.
While motorized off-highway recreation will be hit hardest by any route closures, every user group will potentially be impacted by them. For example Alternative E would close over 50% of
all motorized routes in the PSI, including numerous major thoroughfares, campgrounds, and hiking trailheads. It would close the only roads accessing all three main trailheads of the Lost
Creek Wilderness as well as those to several popular 14er trailheads. While that is unlikely to happen, the future of where people will be allowed to drive to camp, hike, or engage in off-
highway recreation all depends on the outcome of this process. While Alternative C is fairly reasonable from a motorized perspective, there are still a number of popular 4×4 trails which would be closed and whose loss will be a painful blow to the off-roading community. These include Twin Cones Road above Kenosha Pass and a number of scenic mining roads around Alma and Fairplay, as well as numerous spur roads used for dispersed camping.
The biggest flashpoint will be the roads in Wildcat Canyon (aka “the Gulches”) along the South Platte River north of Lake George. Most of these roads were temporarily closed after the
Hayman Fire in 2002 and underwent a bitterly contested travel management process in 2004. That process ended in the Forest Service agreeing to reopen them in principle but attempting to
turn over management responsibility to the affected counties. Teller County obtained easements and reopened its portion of the roads to the public by 2009. After two of its easement applications were lost by the Forest Service, Park County abandoned the effort to reopen its half of the Gulches trail system and those roads remain closed and in limbo. It will be up to the Forest Service to decide their final status in this process, with motorized users calling for them to be reopened and environmental groups demanding they be permanently closed in order to avoid environmental impacts to the Platte River.
Ultimately, this travel management process will be a bitter clash between those with diametrically opposed views of acceptable uses of public lands. Motorized users trying to defend the limited access they have now against further closures will face off against those who refuse to tolerate any level of motorized access to National Forests and who want almost all Federal lands managed as Wilderness. Forest Service officials are left with the unenviable task of striking some kind of balance between these two positions. The final outcome will almost inevitably be challenged in court, continuing the cycle of endless litigation that has characterized travel planning under the Travel Management Rule since its adoption.
If there is an area of the Pike San Isabel National Forest you care about, you may submit a comment before November 4 on the project website here. There will also be public meetings held in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Salida the week of October 8 – 11. Participation in the comment period is vital to ensure your voice is heard and the areas you love remain open in the future.
Patrick McKay is a Colorado native from the South Denver area who enjoys Jeeping, hiking, camping, and skiing in the Rocky Mountains. He is a former attorney currently working as a software developer and is passionate about preserving access to public lands for all forms of recreation.