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Colorado: Conservation groups challenge Forest Service over motorized routes on the Pike and San Isabel NF

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Motorized use on the Pike and San Isabel National Forest is at issue in a lawsuit in federal court.

Lawsuit alleges agency didn’t analyze the impact of new motorized routes

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Conservation groups say the Pike and San Isabel National Forest erred in sanctioning hundreds of miles of motorized routes in a contentious 2009 plan that highlighted all the ongoing user conflicts on public lands.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court, the groups claim the Forest Service failed to consider the potential harm to forest resources that could result from motor vehicle use on some routes, many of them created illegally over the course of decades of inadequate off-road vehicle management and enforcement on the forests.

“The Forest Service is rightly required to ‘look before they leap,’” said Melanie Kay of Earthjustice, attorney for the groups. “We’re not asking the Forest Service to ban motor vehicle use on the forests or to deny anyone reasonable access or recreational opportunities. Rather, we’re protecting the interests of forest visitors and the forest itself by ensuring that the agency makes well-informed decisions and does so in accordance with laws and regulations that have been on the books for decades.”

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The Pike and San Isabel National Forest is a playground for Colorado residents, and also includes important natural resources.

Kay said the Forest Service has been unable to show any evidence that the impacts of motorized use on the routes have been analyzed and disclosed, as required by agency regulations and federal laws. The lawsuit cites concerns about impacts to non-motorized routes, as well as to water and air quality, and endangered species. The approval process was fatally flawed, and violated the National Environmental Protection Act, National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act, the groups allege..

The Pike and San Isabel National Forests are Colorado treasures and together are in the top 10 most visited forests in the country. The rocky pinnacles, rolling ponderosa pine forests and high peaks are recreational havens for mountain bikers, hikers and climbers.

Nineteen of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners are here, including the state’s highest, Mount Elbert, at 14,433 feet.  The Forests’ abundant wildlife is a draw for sportsman and tourists. The rugged canyons and remote plateaus are also home to a number of rare species including the threatened Mexico Spotted Owl, Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.

The approval of almost 800 sections of motorized routes could threaten winter range for big game and habitat for federally listed threatened and endangered species. Some of the new routes cross semi-primitive, non-motorized areas or areas managed as winter range for big game; approximately 130 of the disputed routes are in critical habitat for federally listed endangered species.

“At the end of the day, this is about getting the forest back on track,” said Kay. “After years of lenient enforcement of motorized vehicle use, it’s time for the Forest Service to take a stand. Our public lands deserve better than a ‘throw open the doors’ approach to management.”

The public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Quiet Use Coalition, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Center for Native Ecosystems, Wildlands CPR and The Wilderness Society in this matter in federal district court.

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3 Responses

  1. This lawsuit is frivolous and seeks to close routes that were designated by the Travel Management Plan mandated by federal law.

    A complete series of public hearings and open houses were completed by this National Forest, and no objection was raised at that time. The agency had no choice but to meet the deadlines and follow the guidelines outlined in the mandates of Travel Management Planning. It is a travesty that these blatantly anti-OHV groups are seeking to destroy recreational access by exploiting what they think is a loophole. I hope that they fail in their quest, and that they are forced to pay the court costs incurred by the public in defending the reasonable and practical plan implemented by the professionals of the National Forest Service.

    There comes a point where hatred of the internal combustion engine is not a sufficient reason to delay, obfuscate, interfere, and agitate the land managers. These groups are far past that point and should be ashamed of this action. One wonders exactly where they found the funding to take this expensive action. It certainly did not come from the recreating public which participated in the planning process that was used to put these plans in place.

    • Mark, you know as well as anyone that the USFS has a long history of approving bandit routes without adequate analysis because it’s the cheapest and easiest path. They’ve often been challenged on travel plans around the West, and they’ve lost about 80 percent of the time. The Pike-San Isabel routes deserve a second look. Upon review, it will become clear that some of those routes should not have been approved. Why not do it right the first time?

      • “Bandits” did not make these routes – people did. They begin with a single user making a visible track, then by subsequent traffic following it with subsequent widening and clearing of the path. The accepted term that the forest service and other agencies use is “social” trails, because a wide variety of users are involved in the route becoming well-traveled. In most if not all cases, these tracks obviate the need for access to the resources of the area (significant views, scenic features, key network connections).

        In some cases, routes have been designated in other areas that have no associated infrastructure (ex. signage, info kiosks) or maintenance (erosion control, bridging, reinforcement). In some of those rare cases, there have been reversals of decisions and route closures.

        This is not the case in the Pike-San-Isabel decision. The designated routes being questioned were observed and tracked by land managers over a period of many years, added to the system over time, and placed on the patrol and maintenance schedules. Signage, info kiosks, parking and trailhead facilities were added, and maintained infrastructure such as bridges, surface and bank reinforcement, and reroutes around wet areas were added to these social routes. To make a specific point, FUNDS were expended to improve and conserve the routes named in this lawsuit. The guidelines of the Travel Management Rule specifically allow inclusion of trails that have these significant improvements and investment of public funds. Again, let me emphasize that the current lawsuit occurred AFTER disclosure, public comment, and consideration by committee on the current Travel Management Plan.

        In addition, the routes changed in response to past challenges were rarely if ever located in designated OHV usage areas. The Pike-San Isabel riding area in question has been a designated and maintained OHV use area for at least 75 years that I am aware of – long before the Travel Management Rule and NEPA were used to bully the agencies. Adding to that, EXTRAORDINARY care was taken to make certain that no routes came anywhere near areas of environmental or biological concern AS PART OF THE ROUTINE PROCESS for the Travel Management actions.

        It is apparent to me that the only objection to the current trail designations is that they were not subject to a wasteful and complex process that 1) was deemed uncalled for by land management experts, and 2) did not even exist when the trails were first designated in the system. The lawsuit is blatant exploitation of a perceived loophole to accomplish the destruction of public access.

        This is why the actions of the anti-OHV coalition are frivolous and wasteful. It does double the damage to the public because public funds are being used to defend against these flawed lawsuits. The constituency of these groups and the general public should take a close look at the group leaders and ask why their money and resources are being wasted on unnecessary actions and expensive court cases.

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