Forest Service trail plan now set for March release

Under a new trail plan now slated for a March release, The Forest Service would no longer designate trails as "closed" to motorized use. Instead, trails will be presumed closed unless specifically marked as open. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

New rules will spell big changes for trail users on national forest lands in Summit County

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Trail users in the high country could see some big changes this summer when the U.S. Forest Service finally unveils its long-awaited travel management plan for the White River National Forest.

Currently, the release date is set for March 2010, but don’t hold your breath, said forest spokesman Pat Thrasher.

“That’s still a soft date,” Thrasher said, acknowledging that there could be additional delays to finalizing a plan that has been in the pipeline for seven years. Among other factors, the White River forest recently lost a mapping specialist who was working on the maps for the new plan. The agency hopes to replace the staffer in time to complete the needed work, but there are no guarantees.

Release of the decision will be followed by a 45-day appeal period. If all goes well, the agency could be changing signs and handing out maps based on the new plan this coming summer.

The trails plan covers about 350 miles of routes in Summit County, including hiking paths, mountain bike trails, motorized routes and national forest roads. Under a draft version of the plan, the agency could add a couple of hundred more miles of authorized trails, though that’s not a for-sure thing until the final decision is released.

Trail management has been in a bureaucratic limbo the past few years, as various user groups wait for the agency to complete the process. Initially, the White River forest had planned to release the travel management plan as part of its overall land-use plan — the guiding document for allocating uses on national forest lands.

The forest plan was finalized in 2002, but top rangers with the agency decided to separate travel planning from land use. Since then, there have been numerous false starts and delays.

Thrasher said the lengthy planning process can be attributed in large part to the need to balance competing interests.

“Travel management is a very contentious topic. Everybody has an opinion. We’re trying to do right by the resource and meet the needs of the public,” he said.

Additionally, over-arching rules at the national level shifted, as the Forest Service adopted a new off-highway vehicle policy that caused the White River forest to go back to the drawing board for the travel plan.

“The rules have sometimes changed mid-stream,” Thrasher said. But the delays will help ensure that travel management rules on the White River forest will be consistent with other national forests across the country, he explained.

Big changes
“Motorized users are going to see the biggest changes,” Thrasher said. Under the new travel rules, trails will be considered closed to motorized use unless they are specifically designated and signed as being open.

Up to now, it’s been the other way around, with the onus on the Forest Service to mark trails as closed.

That will be a big switch for users in Summit County, where the agency has been managing trails under an interim scheme that was never intended to last for so long.

“When we finished the forest plan in 2002, we said, OK, for the short-term, we’ll allow use of non-system routes,” said Ken Waugh, the recreation staff officer for the Dillon Ranger District. “Now it’s been seven years and counting and we’ve been allowing that use … with the new travel management plan, all bets are off,” he said.

“It will behoove folks to know before they go,” Thrasher said, explaining that motorized users will have to do some research before visiting a national forest with their dirt bikes and ATVs. But they won’t be on their own. The agency plans a major public outreach campaign. Part of the implementation of the travel plan includes the publication of detailed maps for users.

It remains to be seen how well the new system will work. The Forest Service will rely in large part on voluntary compliance and education since it lacks resources for enforcement. And at this point, it’s hard to anticipate the reaction from the motorized community.

Even as motorized use has increased dramatically, off-road riders complain that they’ve been pushed out of areas that they’ve traditionally used and that every new rule change cuts back on their opportunities to use national forest lands.

Draft summaries of the environmental studies for the plan, as well agency responses to public comments, and many other documents are online here.


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