The Fight For Wildcat Canyon: Guest Post by Patrick McKay

The author’s Jeep on the currently open section of the Hackett Gulch trail in Wildcat Canyon.

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

16 thoughts on “The Fight For Wildcat Canyon: Guest Post by Patrick McKay”

  1. People may also be interested to read some information from Wild Connections found via a very quick google search. Their mission is to identify, protect, and restore wildlands, native species, and biological diversity in the Arkansas and South Platte watersheds. Sounds like a solid mission, if you ask me. Also, if “law and order” is your thing, seems like there’s a lot of illegal motorized use happening in this general area. Looks to me like Wild Connections is working successfully with the U.S. Forest Service to address all the illegal motorized use and illegal trails in the area and do a bunch of volunteer restoration work. Good for them. See:

    Here’s some specific Wildcat Canyon info:

    Wildcat Canyon Call to Action

    Protecting and restoring Wildcat Canyon is Wild Connections’ highest restoration priority. Wild Connections is advocating for increased funding and manpower for the Forest Service’s South Park and South Platte Ranger Districts to address the growing problem of illegal motorized use in Wildcat Canyon. Wild Connections can help the Forest Service to install permanent secure closures to block access to the illegal tracks, to educate the riding public about legal recreation options, and to restore areas damaged by illegal use.

    The South Platte River, between Lake George and Cheesman Reservoirs, cuts a 1,200 foot deep gorge east of Lost Creek Wilderness known as Wildcat Canyon. This 7.3 mile stretch of the South Platte River was largely spared in the devastating 2002 Hayman Fire and is now one of the few healthy habitats in the Hayman burn area for large game mammals, birds of prey, migrating songbirds, and wild trout.

    Rampant illegal OHV activity traveling on long-closed roads on both the east and west sides of the canyon and vehicles riding in the South Platte River and Tarryall Creek continues. Vehicles of all sizes are causing deep erosion on the closed roads, creating new illegal tracks across the hillsides, and damaging the delicate streambeds of the South Platte River and Tarryall Creek. The noise and air pollution associated with this illegal travel has tremendous negative impacts on area wildlife.

    Wild Connections is working with other stakeholders to devise a permanent solution. It will take several years and concerted action but the future of Wildcat Canyon is at stake.


    Wild Connections La Salle Pass Restoration Project with the USFS South Park Ranger District near the Farnum roadless area

    September 12, 2020

    Wild Connections has a long history of working to protect the roadless lands in the Farnum Peak/Schoolmarm Mountain and adjoining Badger Flats areas on the Pike National Forest lands, on the east side of South Park. Since 2012, we have had many boots-on-the-ground volunteer teams installing post & cable, restoring illegal motorized tracks, and monitoring the results of these many different projects. All of this hard work has paid off as local residents and hunters consistently report the return of elk and deer herds to these important wild lands.

    We’re excited that our September 2020 restoration project, partnering with the South Park Ranger District, is still on as scheduled.

    For this project on the west side of La Salle Pass, just north of Badger Mountain and US 24, we will address illegal motorized tracks that threaten the roadless lands on the south side of the Farnum Peak and Schoolmarm Mountain. It will continue our long-time efforts to protect the wildlife and wild lands of the area.

    We still plan to do this as a one-day restoration project with a small amount of volunteers, abiding by official health guidelines and recommendations.

  2. I guess if the problem is “illegal” trails, first I would have to know what exactly makes them illegal.. if their “illegalness” is in itself legally accomplished, and to what extent individual OHVers are driving off-trail.

    I guess I don’t like the generic idea that when users behave badly the answer is shutting down access (because members of all communities behave badly). Next could be trailheads.. after all cars driving there cause noise and air pollution.

    “The noise and air pollution associated with this illegal travel has tremendous negative impacts on area wildlife.”
    So do disturbances and pollution caused by hikers and mountain bikers (who also make up their own trails), and dogs off-leash chasing deer, and pollution from people and dog poop and .. so on. If protecting the environment and wildlife is that important, none of us should be out there. And yet we are, more so during Covid-19.

  3. A couple points in response to Matthew. First, while Wild Connections loves to talk about “illegal motorized routes”, but as I explained in my article the only reason these particular trails are “illegal” now is because of Forest Service malfeasance in refusing to grant Park County’s easement application a decade ago. If they had granted Park County the easement they had offered under their own EA, these routes would all be fully legal now.

    As it is, they continue to be driven illegally because they are part of the same trail system as several currently open trails now under Teller County jurisdiction, and there are no signs or barriers marking them as closed, so lots of people are assuming they are open and driving them to complete the historical loops they allowed in the past. Yes it’s “illegal”, but this is what happens when you arbitrarily close half of an incredibly high value motorized trail system that used to provide loop opportunities, thus cutting off the loops and turning the remaining routes into out-and-back trails, while not actually doing anything to mark them as closed.

    Second, Wild Connections’ La Salle Pass/Badger Flats restoration project is a separate project from what I’m talking about in a different area, though it is related. In the 2004 Wildcat Canyon EA, the Forest Service actually said that if the roads in Wildcat Canyon were not reopened, it would lead to greater user concentration and higher impacts in the Badger Flats area. Which is exactly what has happened over the last 16 years since that EA. That in turn caused the Forest Service to do a new area specific travel management plan for Badger Flats a couple years ago where they decommissioned a bunch of roads, and now those are the “illegal” roads Wild Connections is talking about restoring in their Badger Flats project. Those were actually all legal system roads until about a year or two ago.

  4. This sounds like a good example of how too much local autonomy leads to problematic inconsistent decisions. I would ask the forest supervisor why they are allowing this (but the answer might be to close everything).

    • Exactly. To be fair, Supervisor Trujillo is fairly new and probably didn’t know anything about the history of Wildcat Canyon before we approached her about it. But now that we’ve brought our concerns to her, I’m baffled why she is allowing the South Park Ranger to continue going rogue on this, nor why she can’t see any inconsistency between commencing decomissioning work on these roads and the ongoing travel management EIS which is ostensibly considering reopening them. From my research, I think that gives us a pretty strong case for illegal predetermination of a NEPA process, which I would think she would understand and try to avoid. But at this point, the more they keep digging the stronger our case will be when this comes to litigation.

      • There’s an escape clause in the CEQ regulations that might apply and allow decommissioning to occur. If the travel plan is a programatic decision (§1508.18(b)(3)), and it is covered by an existing EIS, I believe it would be governed by §1506.1(c) (which limits actions only where the programatic decision is NOT covered by an existing EIS) rather than §1502.2(f) (which prohibits committing resources “prejudicing selection of alternatives”).

        • Interesting. I suppose the Forest Service may try to argue that. Whether that is actually applicable here would be a question for our attorney who is frankly more familiar with the nuances of environmental regulations that I am.

          The situation is further complicated by the fact that the South Park Ranger District issued a Supplemental Information Report (SIR) in 2019 claiming changed circumstances (none of which are actually changed, but that’s another issue), in order to block Park County from applying for a new easement under the 2004 EA. That SIR said a new EA would be needed before any further action could be taken under the 2004 EA, which I would think would not only block reopening the roads, but also decomissioning them–under the authority of that EA at least.

          At any rate, §1506.1(c) also prohibits actions “which may significantly affect the quality of the human environment”, and which “prejudice the ultimate decision on the program … when it tends to determine subsequent development or limit alternatives.”

          While I haven’t researched that standard in depth, I would imagine that committing resources to decommission roads that one alternative in the ongoing EIS would reopen would be considered prejudicing the ultimate decision. As always in litigation though, both sides have plenty of legal arguments they can make. If this comes to a lawsuit, we’ll just have to see which ones a judge finds more persuasive.

          • “If this comes to a lawsuit, we’ll just have to see which ones a judge finds more persuasive.”

            Patrick, wow, you are such an “extremist” and “radical” and “terrorist” and “obstructionist” for threatening to file a “frivolous” lawsuit!

            [Note: All words in quotes are really not meant to describe Patrick, but instead are used to simply point out that these same exact words are used on a regular basis by various leaders within a certain political party, and also leaders within various resource-extraction industries, to denigrate forest and wildlife protection people.]

            • People on both sides of the aisle say silly demeaning things about people they disagree with. Thank Gaia we have a place here where we can talk about the issues without calling people names!

    • Good point. I’m afraid I don’t have those in an easily shareable format, but CORE will be putting out a video probably next week that explains the whole story in more depth than I was able to here and includes screenshots of most of the relevant documents. I’ll be sure to post that here once it’s out.

      • Hi Patrick,

        When I originally read your account, like George, I also felt a need and desire to see all the internal documents that you cited. If “screenshots of most of the relevant documents” can be used in an upcoming video, as you claim, it stands to reason that “screenshots of most of the relevant documents” can also be shared here on this blog. I’m willing to post those screenshots if you send them to be, or perhaps Sharon would be too. Thanks.

        • Ok I’ll see what I can do. It’s not that I mind sharing the original documents, it’s more just a matter of format and the effort to collate them. We literally received several thousand emails across a ton of extremely disorganized PDFs so collecting the important ones and presenting them in a readable format is a bit of a chore. You probably know what I’m talking about since I’m sure you’ve done FOIAs before. Let me check though if my associate who is working on the video has all that compiled already.

          • Fair enough Patrick. Yes, I’m familiar with how much of a chore it can be. Let me know if you want help getting them up on the blog.

            • I just posted links to the relevant documents in a comment. If you’d like to add them to the body of my article go ahead.

  5. My apologies it took me a little while to collect these, since I was out of town over the weekend. Here are some links to the original documents and emails from the Forest Service I referenced in my article. These are only a fraction of all the documents we received, but they are the most relevant ones.

    * 2004 Hayman Roads EA:

    * 2004 Hayman Roads FONSI:

    * Park County Public Works 2014 Staff Report summarizing the county’s position on the roads:

    * Park County Easement Application from 2014 (rescinded in 2015):

    * FS emails regarding Park County’s easement requests:

    * 2019 Supplemental Information Report blocking new easement requests:

    * FS emails regarding Voorhis’ plan to decommission the roads:

    * Voorhis’ decommissioning project memo:

    * FS Transportation Planner Gary Morrison’s objections:

    Let me know if you have any questions about these. I tried to put them in roughly chronological order and keep conversation chains together. I believe the story these documents tell is quite damning and is as clear a case of illegal predetermination of a NEPA process as there has ever been, considering these roads area still under consideration to determine their final fate in the ongoing travel management process which is currently awaiting the publication of the FEIS and draft decision notice.


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