Pike-San Isabel Travel Management History and Comment Period Open: Guest Post from Patrick McKay

The author’s Jeep on a road off Mosquito Pass threatened with closure.
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.

8 thoughts on “Pike-San Isabel Travel Management History and Comment Period Open: Guest Post from Patrick McKay”

  1. In our effort to try to share aspects of history, I was involved peripherally in the lawsuit. At the time it appeared to me that the legal decisions about settlement were being made without involvement of the rec staff in the Region (not the way we worked for minerals litigation) or the WO -but maybe they became included later and no one told me.

    Someone (maybe someone else knows who exactly) made the judgment that kicking the analysis can down the road was a better solution than risking a precedent. This also was part of settlements of some mineral cases I recall. And so it here we are almost ten years later, with the same disagreements. Interesting that in the minerals cases, you couldn’t go leasing or digging until more analysis was done, and in this case the road and trail status quo was retained until the new analysis was done? Or were some closed in the interim?

    Reply
    • I mentioned this in an earlier draft of my article but cut it out to save space. A number of the disputed roads in the lawsuit (I’d assume those deemed most sensitive for various reasons) were temporarily closed by the terms of the settlement. Most others were left open, but a lot of them have temporary seasonal closures that the travel management process will decide whether to make permanent. Some of the temporarily closed roads include the upper portion of Twin Cones Road above Kenosha Pass and the upper portions of the Halfmoon Gulch and Iron Mike roads near Leadville, as well as some others I’m not as familiar with.

      For those three I believe the specific justification was that mapping errors in the process of transposing the borders of the management areas from the 1984 Forest Plan to modern maps caused those roads to cross into 3A non-motorized areas, even though the boundaries had originally been intended to cherry-stem those roads. As part of the travel analysis process, the Forest Service is also doing Forest Plan amendments to adjust those boundaries to reflect their original intent.

      Reply
  2. This applies to the current and all future proposed closures: STOP all of your damn access closures to public lands! We want management that protects our rights, not ignores them!!

    Reply
  3. Most interesting, thank you. Maybe submit your article as an op-ed for the Denver Post?

    Also (this is totally off-topic), how did the Spanish Santa Isabel come to be transmogrified into San Isabel? Every time I see that, I wince, figuratively.

    Reply
    • I couldn’t find that easily but I did find this..
      “In 1919 San Isabel became the first forest to have a narrative recreation plan, authored by Arthur Carhart. The objective was to organize the area as an example of recreational services overseen by the Service. He conceptualized his planning to include elements of sanitation, transportation, wildlife management and fire protection. ” So we can celebrate 100 years of recreation planning :).

      https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/forest/colorado-nf/inventory4.htm

      Reply
  4. Please keep Colorado’s forest and mountain roads open! Vehicular access to remote camping, hiking, fishing and hunting areas is part of what keeps those activities dispersed, more enjoyable and safer. Every road or trail that closes forces those activities into higher density.

    Lourenço Marques, forms like Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, and Santa Fe and Santa Barbara use the complete Spanish word for “Saint” or “Holy”, but it was and is common to shorten it. Think of San Diego, San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. San Isabel is in good company!

    Reply
  5. I am a native of Colorado. My whole life I have spent time outdoors with family. Currently, Jeeping is the only way for me to still spend time with my mom, my uncles and my aunts as they are getting to old to hike into the mountains. We practice leave no trace principles and always stay on trail.

    Reply
    • Stuart, I don’t really understand if the point is to close roads for general environmental reason or some specific environmental reason, or just because they can’t afford to keep all the roads open, or because the folks who filed the lawsuit wanted it. Maybe that is in the PSICC documents somewhere.

      As for me, it’s hard for me to say that jeepers who behave well have more environmental impacts than any other users.

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Mike Selka Cancel reply