White River travel-management plan now takes center stage | VailDaily.com

White River travel-management plan now takes center stage

Dennis Webb

The White River National Forest is kicking off a travel management planning process by holding a series of public meetings, starting with one from 6-9 p.m. today at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle.

The process will decide the future of the WRNF’s road and trail system, including which routes should be open or closed and what types of uses should be allowed. It governs summer and winter transportation.

While much of the attention in forest travel management is focused on motorized vehicle uses, the plan also will govern mountain-biking, foot travel, and use of horses and llamas.

“I think all users need to be involved” in the process, said Dan Hormaechea, planning staff officer for the WRNF.

Hormaechea said he hopes for strong participation, now that the Forest Service has postponed the process so it wouldn’t interfere with completion of the WRNF forest plan.

Some forest users complained that trying to do both plans at once was proving too complicated and overwhelming for both the public and the agency.

“I’m hoping that indeed those people now come back and say, “OK, the forest plan’s behind us, let’s get on with more site-specific travel management,'” Hormaechea said.

Randy Parsons, president of the White River Forest Alliance, a group advocating for motorized vehicle uses, agreed that public involvement will be important.

This process will result in site-specific travel decisions, unlike the forest plan, which addressed travel management only in terms of broad policies.

“You’re looking at each trail. Will it be open or not?” Parsons said.

He said the Forest Service also wants to know if groups will help maintain roads and trails, since it has almost no budget for that task. Parsons said a system is needed to direct user fees to signing, parking, and trail construction and maintenance.

The public meetings are beginning just a week after the deadline for appealing the forest plan.

Among those who filed appeals was the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition. Parsons said the coalition feels the forest plan addresses travel management too generically, leaving it open for land managers to make subjective decisions.

The group also contends the plan goes too far in protecting elk habitat in Four Mile Park above Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs, at the expense of motorized vehicle use.

Despite those concerns, Parsons says the Forest Service has been listening to the issues raised by motorized vehicle users. By and large, he considers the final forest plan “a way better document than the draft plan,” which had been criticized by motorized vehicle users, ski industry officials, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, and others as too restrictive of human uses.

One change between the draft and final plans is the promotion of looped, interconnecting trails, which McInnis and motorized vehicle users advocated.

“We do not have anything like that in the White River. Why is a mystery,” said Parsons.

He said he thinks it has to do “with the political persuasion of the people in charge.”

“It has a lot to do with the Aspen influence,” he added. “There’s a lot of money up there and pretty vocal green organizations.”

Parsons said his group consists of about 100 members, and about 25 are active. Its goal is to prevent further restrictions on vehicle uses on the forest.

“We’re not promoting going out with “dozers and building a bunch of new trails. We’re just trying to protect what’s there,” he said.

The final forest plan bans off-trail use, and Parsons doesn’t object. He said motorized vehicle users just want to have trails available for their use. They also support seasonal trail and road closures, such as in the spring when routes are muddy and elk are calving.

But such restrictions should be within reason, said Parsons. Extending calving restrictions as late as July 4 goes too far.

Parsons said with all-terrain vehicle use skyrocketing, it’s important to preserve parts of the forest for that use. Otherwise, if people buy machines and have no place to use them, “then you’re looking for trouble,” he said.

Hormaechea said one reason for the public to be involved in the planning process is because the Forest Service will consider adding to its system some roads and trails that have been created by users but aren’t officially sanctioned. Some 500 miles of such trails now exist.

While the Forest Service doesn’t want to encourage the creation of more unofficial trails, it would consider sanctioning routes that make sense, Hormaechea said.

The WRNF has nearly 2,300 miles of officially sanctioned roads. Only nine new miles of road have been built and 68 miles reconstructed in the last 20 years. About 46 miles of official roads and nearly 100 miles of non-sanctioned ones have been closed and obliterated since 1988.

Hormaechea said he’s guessing that a draft travel management plan could be issued by late 2003, and the final plan could be done in 2004.

Further public meetings on travel management are planned, including:

– 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Blanco Ranger District Office in Meeker.

– 6:30 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Eagle County Office Mount Sopris Room in Basalt.

– 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, at the Summit County Middle School auditorium.

– 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Avon Public Library’s Beaver Creek Room.

The meetings will include a presentation and question-and-answer period, and maps of the current road and trail system will be on display. Written comments also will be taken at the meeting.

The initial comment period continues through Oct. 31.

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