Groups weigh in on plan for forest

Goal is to balance motorized, quiet use of Rico-Dolores

User groups of the vast network of roads and trails in the Rico-West Dolores portion of the San Juan National Forest each gave short presentations on the importance of their activities at a workshop Thursday in Dolores.

The event kick-starts a U.S. Forest Service planning process that will determine a travel management plan for 244,550 acres of federal land stretching from the Westfork River north to the Rico Mountains and Lizard Head Pass.

The area of study includes Stoner Mesa, Taylor Mesa, Black Mesa, Lizard Head Wilderness, Priest Gulch, Dunton, Calico Trail, Bear Creek, Scotch Creek, Roaring Creek, Ryman Creek, the Dolores River and many other places in-between.

The public lands are wildly popular for hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, mountain biking, horseback riding, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, ATV riding, and single-track motorcycling, among other activities.

Creating a trail and road plan that accommodates quiet users of the forest, provides for motorized recreation and protects wildlife and game habitat is the goal, forest officials said.

Travel management plans are a relatively new regulatory process, said district ranger Derek Padilla, and were triggered by a surge in unmanaged motorized uses on public lands nationwide.

"In 2005, Forest Chief Dale Bosworth decided it needed action, so he imposed the travel-management rule," Padilla said. "Direction was given to each national forest within the nation to designate a system of roads, trails and areas, and anything not designated would be off-limits to motorized traffic."

Tiff Rodriguez advocated for horse-riding in the area, and wants adequate parking for trailers. Ryman Creek, Bear Creek, Kilpacker Trail and School House are good horse trails.

"There is nothing quite like getting lost in the backcountry on a horse," she said. "Horses have been here a long time, so we should make sure we preserve that."

Matt Clark of Trout Unlimited urged compromise from different forest users, rather than litigation and appeals.

"This time around we need more of a spirit of collaboration," he said. "Travel management minimizes ecological impacts. Planners need to justify why each road is opened or closed."

He said in some case work should be done to adjust trails so they avoid riparian areas and meadows.

Mike Corran represented hunter interests, and said motorized traffic can ruin a hunt.

"The overriding issue is noise," he said. "It complicates your hunt when you walk one and a half hours before dawn, then a dirt bike comes by and spooks all the game."

Non-motorized users are more prevalent in the forest, he said, "so why are there 119 miles of motorized in the Cortez-Mancos plan and only 60 miles of non-motorized?"

Rick Keck and Casey McClellan rallied for motorized users.

"The forest should be multiple use, and roads should not be closed unless there is sound scientific evidence to do so," he said. "A social study is needed identifying what people want. It is unacceptable when changes affect the future of our community."

McClellan, of Timberline Trailriders, represents the single-track motorcycle enthusiasts. He said there are fewer and fewer places for single-track riding, and that more access is needed for the activity in the forest.

"We benefit many users because we often ride with chainsaws to clear trails," he said.

Dani Gregory stepped up to share the mountain biking opportunities that abound in the Rico-West Dolores area. Popular routes are the Colorado Trail, Calico Trail, Stoner Mesa, Tender Foot, Salt Creek, Ryman, and Bear Creek.

"Typically you see mountain bikers riding up the roads and then down the trails," she said. "In this plan we would like to see some improved trail alignment so it is more conducive to ride up the trails as well. More switchbacks would help hikers and prevent erosion as well."

A crowd of 40 to 50 attended the meeting, and discontent occasionally grumbled in the audience as different user groups presented their case.

The meeting was moderated by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution. Moderator Cherie Shanteau-Wheeler sensed the tension.

"I get the feeling there is collaboration fatigue," she said. "I urge you to find a new way of working together. Get creative and try not to crack heads. Fighting each other is not the best way to find a balanced solution."

Bob Marion represented the quiet users of the forest, and emphasized separation of motorized and non-motorized users.

"Once a motorized trail goes in, it displaces most quiet users," he said. "Only 12 percent of the Dolores District is roadless. I don't want a ban (on motorized), but it should go where appropriate."

An increase in motorized use on the forest has scattered wildlife to the point it is not seen as much anymore by hikers looking for that experience, he added.

Matt Thorpe, southwest Colorado manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said depending on where they are, roads and trails can have a negative impact on wildlife and habitat. Allowing quiet refuge for wildlife to thrive in key areas has a direct connection to hunting success.

"I advocate for wildlife. That is what the public pays me to do," he said. "We will be providing information on how wildlife uses the area, where the elk production areas are, where seasonal closures and trial alignment can reduce impacts."

District ranger Padilla responded to an interesting question regarding motorized access for the handicapped under the American for Disability Act.

He said the Office of the General Counsel recently handed down a legal directive on the matter. Because closures are based on protecting natural resources they are not considered discriminatory.

"The reason we don't allow motorized usage into an area is because it is an impact to the resource," Padilla said. "Therefore by not giving a concession to people who may be mobility impaired we are not discriminating against them."

This is the second go-around for the Rico-West Dolores TMP. In 2009, after a long public input process and several meetings, forest officials remanded it back to the drawing board saying there was a lack of public input and information sharing from the forest service.

"We've already been through the process, and it is aggravating to be back here again," said Julie Kibel, a Dolores County Commissioner. "The (previous) process was contentious, but in the end, different user groups sat at the same table and worked it out."

The meeting was one of three to be held this summer. They are not part of the formal travel-management public-input process and were implemented to help identify potential conflicts early and increase community participation.