Public lands plan shifts north
Rico-Dolores use begins public process
Jim Mimiaga/Cortez Journal
The San Juan National Forest is revisiting a travel management plan for the Rico-West Dolores area.
Forest officials hope to ward off the level of controversy during the Boggy-Glade travel plan that led to protest marches, threats, increased security and an unfavorable report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about an impending Sagebrush Rebellion in Montezuma County.
The upcoming process for the Rico-West Dolores travel management plan has similar controversial issues, and is already embroiled in a lawsuit.
The area covers 244,550 acres encompassing federal lands surrounding Bear Creek, Taylor Mesa and around Rico, Dunton, Black Mesa and Stoner Mesa.
The original plan was unveiled in September 2009, but it was reversed by then-forest supervisor Mark Stiles who said it needed more review.
"We had it remanded back to us, and have begun the process again," said Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla. "We're in the preliminary phases."
This time around the forest service hired the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to help facilitate the public process portion of the plan. Created by Congress in 1998, the non-partisan program specializes in helping communities come together to create effective public discussions on challenging topics.
Last Fall, a core group of 40 stakeholders were interviewed individually by the Institute and forest service staff do determine "what is right and what is wrong about management in that area," Padilla explained.
A final report on that process will be made public soon. A spring "kick-off" meeting will be held, and more public meetings will occur in fall.
Motorized trails challenged
Single-track motorized trails in the Rico-West Dolores area became the basis for a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Colorado Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).
The sportsmen's group challenged 14 trails designated for single-track motorcycle use, asserting that their impacts were not analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act. The trails are located within a section of forest service land categorized as nonmotorized and semiprimitive.
"Many single-track motorized trails in that section of forest land have never had NEPA compliant analysis, and that violates their own rules under the forest plan," said Bob Marion, a local Forest Watchman for BHA.
According to the lawsuit, BHA argued that allowing the motorized trail use was a "final agency action" and therefore required analysis by the Administrative Procedures Act and NEPA.
But the court disagreed, and ruled in March, 2013 that the USFS had documentation dating back to 1999 designating the trails in question as open for motorized use.
BHA has appealed the ruling, and the case is pending.
Meanwhile in May, 2013, BHA filed a Motion 60 Relief from Judgement, a legal tool that seeks to nullify court rulings based on newly discovered evidence.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, BHA obtained a chain of internal USFS e-mails and asserted they showed trail designations on a computer database were changed to motorized use without going through proper public process.
In February, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia S. Krieger disagreed, and the motion was denied.
Krieger ruled that the USFS did not violate due process and that the emails showed the agency was matching up a computer database of trail designations to coincide with what was allowed in a 2005 visitors map.
"The correction of inaccuracies in an agency's internal data, harmonizing that data to accurately reflect actual, historical management activities, is not a final agency action subject to APA review," wrote Judge Krieger.
BHA contends the base data for determining motorized use on those trails should be the 1983 forest plan, not the 2005 visitors map.
The group feels that too many motorized trails within the Rico-West Dolores district have a negative impact on wildlife and hunting.
"Hunters are the largest user group in that area, and we feel they have been ignored," he said. "We're not against motorcycles, but we believe that area is not the right place for them. The motorized routes go through superb wildlife habitat that displaces deer and elk."
The Johnny Bull and Calico trails are two of the more well-known single-track motorized routes disputed by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who were supported in "friend of the court" briefs by the Town of Rico, San Juan Citizen's Alliance, Rico Alpine Society, and Dunton, LLC.
Motorized groups, including The Blue Ribbon Coalition and Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, praised the court's decision upholding the forest service's designated motorized routes.
"These trails have been enjoyed by motorized and non-motorized enthusiasts for decades," said Gary Wilkinson, of San Juan Trail Riders. "Hunting should not be the excuse to drive a wedge between Colorado's trail users. Perhaps this decision will allow trail users to work more closely together as an alternative to litigation."