Patrick McKay is a board member of Colorado Offroad Enterprise (CORE) and Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders.
A coalition of motorized access groups led by Colorado Offroad Enterprise (CORE), has recently uncovered a disturbing plot by officials in the Pike San Isabel National Forest to illegally close one of the most popular motorized trail systems in Colorado in circumvention of the ongoing travel management process and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
For many decades, off-road vehicle enthusiasts nationwide have enjoyed driving the rugged four-wheel-drive roads in Wildcat Canyon in the Pike National Forest. Located in a steep canyon along the South Platte River about an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs on the border between Teller and Park Counties, these Jeep trails are also known as “The Gulches” after the three primary trails of Hackett, Longwater, and Metberry Gulches. Since roughly the late 1950s, these roads have been one of the most popular off-road trail systems in the Front Range for recreation enthusiasts seeking adventure, offering a unique set of off-road challenges, river access for swimming and fishing, and spectacular scenery in a rugged gorge filled with towering rock formations.
Since the early 2000s, however, Wildcat Canyon has been ground zero for one of the most contentious battles in Colorado between off-roaders and environmental groups determined to close these roads and lock motorized users, but not themselves, out of the canyon in the name of “conservation.” In 2002, the area around Wildcat Canyon was devastated by the Hayman Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history. All of the roads in the region were temporarily closed after the fire, and the Forest Service subsequently began working on a new environmental analysis to determine how to manage the roads in the burn zone.
After a highly contentious public comment period with off-road groups facing off against environmental groups wishing to close Wildcat Canyon to motorized use, the Forest Service issued a decision in 2004 which concluded that re-opening the roads in the canyon was the best option both to meet the public demands for motorized recreation and to protect the environment. However, due to its limited resources, the Forest Service would only allow the roads to be reopened if the relevant county governments agreed to take responsibility for maintaining these roads.
Teller County immediately applied for and was quickly granted easements allowing it to take over management of the eastern half of the Gulches trail system, which was reopened to the public by 2009, with the Colorado Springs off-road group Predator 4WD agreeing to maintain the trails on behalf of the county as they had already done for many years prior.
Park County, which contains the western half of the trail system, first applied for an easement in 2008. In contrast to Teller County, Park County’s attempts to obtain easements were repeatedly stonewalled by the Forest Service. Ultimately, Park County submitted no less than four easement applications between 2008 and 2014, with each being met with either silence or excuses from the Forest Service such as claims to have lost the paperwork or not having the budget to process it. Internal Forest Service emails obtained by CORE show agency employees, including two different South Park District rangers, repeatedly searching for reasons not to grant the easements and attempting to discourage Park County officials from moving forward with their request.
Finally in 2015, Park County Manager Tom Eisenman retracted the county’s easement application, apparently without obtaining the approval of the Park County Commission, leaving the Park County roads in limbo. With the eastern half of the trail system open and no signs or barriers at the county line to indicate the roads in Park County were closed, they have continued to be regularly driven by motorized users to this day.
New Travel Management Process
Also in 2015, a lawsuit by a coalition of preservationist groups resulted in a settlement agreement in which the Pike San Isabel National Forest agreed to completely re-do its motorized travel plan with a new travel management process. During the scoping period in 2016, the Forest Service received numerous comments asking it to reopen the closed roads in Wildcat Canyon.
The Forest Service responded by including an alternative in the draft EIS published in 2019, which considered reopening some (but not all) of these roads, leaving out crucial connecting routes to restore the loop opportunities provided by the original trail system. This analysis was flawed from the start, as it relied on a 2015 Travel Analysis Report written by South Park District Ranger Josh Voorhis. That report rated most of these roads as having low recreational value solely because they were currently closed, rather than considering the incredibly high value they had for motorized recreation when they were open, which had been repeatedly acknowledged by the Forest Service in prior environmental analyses.
Internal emails show that Mr. Voorhis strongly opposed including these roads in the travel management EIS at all, as he had already decided to permanently close and decommission them. As a result of the wide latitude Voorhis was given in making decisions for the roads in his district, the preferred alternative in the 2019 draft EIS proposed to decommission almost all of the Wildcat Canyon roads in Park County, with no indication that any serious consideration was ever given to reopening them. The preferred alternative also contained more road closures in the South Park District than in all other districts combined.
The Plot to Decommission the Roads
Instead of waiting for a final decision on the Wildcat Canyon roads to be made in the travel management process, Mr. Voorhis (along with South Platte District Ranger Brian Banks) decided to circumvent that process entirely and began working with local anti-motorized user groups to illegally decommission the roads with no environmental analysis or public involvement.
In May of 2018, Voorhis wrote an internal memo kicking off a decommissioning project with three elements: (1) Removing all existing metal signs and fencing from the Park County roads, (2) installing heavy metal barriers blocking access to the closed Park County roads from the open roads in Teller County, and (3) re-contouring the roads on the west side of the river to physically remove them from the ground. Another Forest Service employee strongly objected to Voorhis’ plan, saying in an email that decommissioning these highly desirable roads in a controversial area with no supporting environmental analysis or public input was illegal and invited distrust and justified outrage from the motorized community.
Nevertheless, Voorhis moved forward with his project, purchasing the metal barriers in the summer of 2019 and searching for contractors to install them that fall. Simultaneously, he and a Forest Service biologist with a demonstrably strong bias against motorized recreation wrote up a document claiming “changed circumstances” which would prevent Park County from being granted an easement under the 2004 EA, thereby thwarting a renewed push by CORE and other motorized groups to get Park County to re-apply for an easement in spring 2019.
It was during the public comment period for the draft EIS in fall 2019 that CORE first became aware of Voorhis’ plans to decommission these roads, when he unsuccessfully sought permission from Teller County to barricade the roads on the east side of the canyon further up in Teller County. CORE subsequently hired an attorney to file a FOIA request for all Forest Service documents pertaining to Wildcat Canyon, which we obtained in early 2020.
The Forest Supervisor’s Response
Having learned through the documents provided in response to our FOIA request of Voorhis’ plans to install permanent barriers blocking access to the Park County roads sometime in 2020, CORE wrote to Forest Supervisor Diana Trujillo this spring asking for her assurance that no actions would be taken to decommission any roads in Wildcat Canyon until after a final decision was made in the travel management EIS.
After a phone conversation with the Supervisor in May, Deputy Forest Supervisor Dave Condit wrote to us on her behalf on July 1 stating that, “The Forest does not plan to do any work on the roads in Wildcat Canyon this year. There will be no changes until we complete our Travel Management Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and sign the subsequent project Record of Decision (ROD).”
Unfortunately, this assurance turned out to be false. On the same day Mr. Condit sent his email, Wild Connections (the lead environmental group pushing for closure of Wildcat Canyon) published their July monthly newsletter in which they announced they had received a grant from Park County and permission from the South Park Ranger District to move forward with a “metal removal project” in Wildcat Canyon later this summer.
This project was the same as the first element of Mr. Voorhis’ decommissioning plan from May 2018, removing all the old signs and fencing from the Park County roads in preparation for obliterating the routes from the ground. Those signs and fences were originally placed decades ago by Predator 4WD in partnership with the Forest, and continue to be helpful today in preventing drivers who inadvertently drive the closed roads without knowing of the closure from going off trail. They would also be critical for this purpose if the roads were ever legally reopened.
When CORE contacted Ms. Trujillo again in August with these concerns and asked her to prevent Wild Connections from completing this project until a final travel management decision has been made, she dismissed our concerns, falsely claiming that the metal removal work was not decommissioning and it would not affect the outcome of the travel management process. This is unfortunate as it shows the Forest has no interest in partnering with or maintaining the trust of motorized groups who wish to see these trails reopened, and has already predetermined to close them regardless of public demand for motorized recreational opportunities in Wildcat Canyon.
At this point CORE has no choice but to assume the Forest has not been proceeding with good faith in this matter, and to prepare for inevitable objections and likely litigation over the Forest Service’s malfeasance regarding these roads. We are calling on all motorized recreationists to write to Supervisor Trujillo, as well as the Park County Commission and other elected officials, expressing extreme disappointment over the decision to proceed with decommissioning these roads before the travel management process is complete.
The fight is not over yet. The off-road community in Colorado is hopeful that, if enough individuals get involved and show that motorized recreation is important to them, these treasured roads will once again be open to all outdoor recreation enthusiasts