A question of freedom in the forest

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Extra chairs had to be brought in for the crowd at the Forest Service meeting Wednesday night releasing the results of the Boggy-Glade Travel Plan.

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

The U.S. Forest Service unveiled a revised travel management plan Thursday for Boggy-Glade, the area north of Dolores comprising 245,800 acres of San Juan National Forest.

For years, the Forest Service has drawn the ire of locals who feel the agency is closing too many roads and Off-Highway Vehicle trails inside Boggy-Glade. The outcry is also philosophical: they interpret forest planning, which involves setting boundaries where motorized travel is acceptable, as an affront to their freedom.

While the decision document was not available to the public until Thursday, Forest Service officials chose to meet with Montezuma County commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer Wednesday evening to discuss the decision. Commissioners Larrie Rule and Steve Chappell did not attend.

Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla, and Deborah Kill, an environmental policy analyst, were on hand to give an overview of the 60-page document.

They were greeted by a crowd of 30 people, mostly members of the Four Corners 9/12 Project, who didn't hide their contempt for the plan - and for Washington, D.C. government in general.

The tone was adversarial from the outset.

"You have no right to own the damn forest," one man said just moments after the session convened.

With only Koppenhafer present, it was not considered an official public meeting, so attendees were not required to give their names before speaking.

Crowd members immediately pounced on this fact, declaring it "convenient" that commissioners Rule and Chappell were missing. Koppenhafer clarified that Rule was recovering from surgery and Chappell was out of town, and said no evasion was intended.

The Forest Service decision was the second attempt to develop a comprehensive multi-use plan for Boggy-Glade.

The new proposal - "Modified Alternative D" - preserves 379 miles of forest roads and 42 miles of newly designated OHV trails. It eliminates 70 miles of old roads, 20 fewer than the original plan. It prohibits motorized cross-country travel through undisturbed forest, but makes exceptions for limited game retrieval, dispersed camping and day-use parking.

Kill said the changes were necessary to restore wildlife habitat and watersheds. Trail proliferation and overuse has "caused precipitation runoff down the worn tracks instead of percolating through to the soil," she said.

Padilla added that Boggy-Glade is a "transition zone between Ponderosa pine and piņon-juniper woodland habitats", used heavily by elk.

"There are too many roads and not enough secluded spaces to separate themselves from human presence. Without (those spaces), the elk move elsewhere, which nobody wants."

The audience wasn't buying it.

Disdain for the plan at times grew personal. Padilla was brazenly asked whether he believed in God (he said he did), had read the Constitution lately (he said he carried a copy), and how he could sleep at night.

Padilla defended the Forest Service and argued that ample time was given for feedback.

"But you don't listen to it," someone shot back.

Sheriff Dennis Spruell apologized for the less-than-civil tone of certain exchanges, but vouched for the crowd's grievances.

Among them were bulldozing long-established roads, blocking off routes with berm and rock barriers, poor communication and too much red tape - all adding up to an intrusive, unpleasant atmosphere they said discouraged hunters - and their money - from coming here.

After the original decision was appealed and reversed in November 2010 - ironically for too many roads on a certain swath of forest - Kill said she held meetings with county commissioners and the public about which roads were important to keep open and why.

One contentious flashpoint was the right of hunters to retrieve large game, like deer and elk, using motorized vehicles. Alternative D allows for motorized retrieval - with caveats: OHVs 50 inches in width or smaller may venture one mile off designated roadways during archery, muzzleloader, first through fourth rifle, and late antlerless elk seasons, so long as the hunter has a license and carcass tag. Kill said this was a concession by the Forest Service compared to the first plan and evidence they were being responsive.

From the audience's perspective, the Forest Service was micromanaging and splitting hairs with its precise regulations. They scoffed audibly when Padilla said firewood gathering was permitted within 300 feet from the road, and that campers could only park one vehicle-length off to the side.

"Is your job to manage resources or people?" quipped Dexter Gill, spokesman for the 9/12 group.

Padilla said the Forest Service was aiming for consistency, and that other national forests have the same rules.

Flabbergasted, another man said, "Most people like myself will be mad enough to (disregard the rules) anyway!"

"That's their prerogative," Padilla replied.

He explained that rangers will spend the first year educating forest users who might be unaware of the rule changes, "gaining compliance by request." Only "flagrant violators" would be issued citations, he said.

Attendees did not seem fazed by the prospect of fines.

"You talk about your nifty laws," one man said, after Kill referenced no less than seven federal statutes that give the Forest Service legal clout to conserve sensitive habitats. "When you violate them, there's no such thing as legality anymore. We will go where we please, when we please, and restore those roads ourselves."

With emotions flaring, Debbie Boyd seized the moment to give a lengthy political treatise: unless Alternative D was reversed, she feared a downward spiral from fascism to socialism to communism.

Padilla rejected the notion that the Forest Service was out for a power trip.

Legislation in the 1970s under presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter laid the foundation for more systematic management of public lands. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth added teeth to those earlier laws in 2005 by requiring each forest without designated motor vehicle guidelines to create them.

"In decades past, ATV use was not prevalent. In 2005 it was identified that unless defined trail systems were in place, the increase in ATV use would have detrimental consequences on resources," Padilla said in an interview Thursday. "People can still hunt. Can they drive to every single acre they could before? No, they can't. But they still have access."

So what happens next?

Individuals and groups have 45 days to file an appeal against Alternative D. Fifty more days are given to resolve any forthcoming appeals. If an appeal has legal standing, the decision could be tabled temporarily, or voided altogether - "then it's back to the drawing board," Padilla said. On the other hand, if an appeal is dismissed and the decision upheld, modifications to Boggy-Glade would begin in the spring of 2013.

The meeting ended with a verbal agreement that Padilla would invite an expert on forest law to clear up questions surrounding "RS2477 roads," those covered by an 1886 right-of-way law. If a plaintiff proves a certain road predates 1976 and served a functional purpose, like timber or mining, it cannot legally be removed.

The crowd accused the Forest Service of routinely ignoring this law. Padilla said the burden of proof is on those who assert RS2477 status.


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