Glenwood Springs — The White River National Forest will close 692 miles of “bandit” routes and decommission another 519 miles of roads and trails that are open when it implements new travel rules later this year.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams announced Wednesday that his office completed a travel management plan after more than seven years of work. The plan is a comprehensive document that determines which forest users can use what routes in the sprawling White River National Forest. The plan affects forest lands between Rifle and Summit County and from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs.
The plan is “probably one of the most important resource decisions a forest supervisor will make,” Fitzwilliams said. “It really has a great impact on everything we do.”
He said his decision tries to provide a balance between ingress, egress and travel within the forest with protections for the land and wildlife. The agency’s financial ability to maintain routes also factored into the decision.
“We don’t need as many roads as we had and we can’t afford them,” Fitzwilliams said.
The plan establishes a sustainable amount of roads and trails for the White River staff to maintain, while providing ample miles of routes for recreation and commerce, Fitzwilliams said. “We really looked at this to provide reasonable access to all users,” he said.
Fitzwilliams acknowledged that the decision wasn’t easy because in some areas, forest users are “diametrically opposed.” The Forest Service decision, in some cases, means “someone wins, someone loses,” he said.
The 1,211 miles of routes that will be closed or decommissioned vary from old roads cut for timber sales and rough routes to mining claims to obscure trails used exclusively by hikers, including some in wilderness areas, according to Rich Doak, recreation staff officer for the White River National Forest.
No figure was available about how many of the miles of routes that will be closed are currently open for motorized vehicles.
The agency also legalized 225 miles of what were formerly unauthorized routes.
The formal conclusion by Fitzwilliams, called a Record of Decision, provides information on how many miles of routes will remain open to various users, including:
• 1,410 miles of roads will be open to licensed vehicles.
• 1,613 miles of roads and trails will be opened for licensed motorcycles and 1,066 miles will be opened to unlicensed motorcycles.
• 1,023 miles are open to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
• 2,172 miles of roads and trails are open to bicycles.
• 3,373 miles are open to equestrians and 3,592 miles of routes are open to hikers.
(The entire White River National Forest is considered “open use” for hikers and equestrians, so they can stray off established routes. Vehicles and bicycles cannot travel cross-country, off routes.)
The TMP lists each road and trail in the six ranger districts of the national forest and clearly defines who can use that route. A Final Environmental Impact Statement was performed to analyze various alternatives and document effects of the decision.
The information can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver. Navigate to “Land & Resource Management/Projects” and scroll down to the Travel Management Plan.
Representatives of user groups that have been involved in the planning process were informed about the release of the plan and they were plowing through the wealth of information to assess it.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and allied environmental groups released a statement Wednesday saying the TMP is “a good first step towards striking the right balance between protection and conservation” but still has “some significant shortcomings.”
One problem is the legalization of 225 miles of previously unauthorized routes.
“We continue to find this is a bad way to make public policy,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “Illegal route development is rampant in many parts of the forest, and rewarding this behavior will ensure that it continues.”
The conservation groups were also concerned that the TMP continues to give forest visitors permission to travel 300 feet off either side of a road to access a dispersed camping spot.
Aaron Clark, recreation program director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, wants the plan to restrict unmanaged camping and require expanded use of designated camping sites.
Shoemaker said the conservation groups haven’t decided if they will file a formal appeal to the Record of Decision.
“It’s the first day. I can’t tell you definitively if we plan an appeal,” he said. “There’s some pretty good stuff in here, but there’s more we’d like to see.
“That’s our job — to keep pressing the Forest Service,” he added.
A 45-day appeal period started Wednesday. Appeals must be received by June 18. If there are appeals, the White River staff will work to address issues by the end of the summer. If there are no appeals, the Forest Service will start implementing the TMP by mid-summer, posting signs with the status of all routes and printing new, detailed maps. Getting complete information out to forest users “is half the battle,” Fitzwilliams said.
Once all the information is out, closures will be enforced by forest rangers and special law enforcement officers.
The plan has been a long time coming. The TMP was originally scheduled to be released in conjunction with the White River National Forest Management Plan, which was released in 2002.
It was separated because of the complexity of the two massive efforts, said Wendy Haskins, resource and planning staff officer. The TMP process was delayed again when the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters released national travel rules in 2005. Work started more than seven years ago on the plan that was released Wednesday, Haskins said. The process included extensive public meetings, open houses and opportunities for comment.
The plan “might not be perfect,” Fitzwilliams said, and some issues might have to be revisited as the effects in the field are gauged.
“That’s said, I think we’ve planned long enough,” Fitzwilliams said.” It’s time to stop the paperwork and start the on-the-ground work.”