White River National Forest to release travel management plan later this year
A planning document the U.S. Forest Service has worked on for about a decade is scheduled to be released later this year and – depending on perspective – will either ease or stoke controversy surrounding the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal.
The White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office is applying finishing touches to a travel management plan – a document that determines which roads and trails are open or closed, and what uses are allowed on routes that remain open.
The time-consuming job is the epitome of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” It clarifies the status of about 5,600 miles of roads and trails covering the 2.3 million acre forest, including 1,200 miles of unauthorized routes, said Wendy Jo Haskins, a forest planner.
“This really does help establish what to work on and what not to work on,” she said. Routes that remain open will be signed; closed routes will be decommissioned and, in many cases, reclaimed.
Once implemented, the plan will require a period of “adjustments” by many forest visitors because routes most of them are familiar with will be affected, Haskins said. A Forest Service regulation says any route not expressly marked as open must be regarded as closed.
An extensive education effort will be undertaken to get users accustomed to changes, Haskins said. Officials in the cash-strapped agency are also pondering how to enforce closures.
The Forest Service started working on the plan in 2000. A draft was released to the public in 2006, then a supplemental draft in 2007 incorporated some changes suggested by the public. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is assessing the plan’s effect on wildlife.
Haskins said she hopes the travel plan will be released in November or December. Once released, there will be a review period before the agency considers signing the plan into effect.
Before they started fighting over Hidden Gems, conservation groups and motorized forest users battled over the travel management plan. “There was a whole lot of heat around the issue of travel,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, a conservation group helping direct the Hidden Gems campaign.
Now, the travel management plan could re-enter the debate.
Shoemaker said the Hidden Gems proposal is largely consistent with the recommendations made by the draft travel management plan. Most of the roads and trails that would be closed by adding Hidden Gems Wilderness areas were already planned for closure in the travel management plan, he said.
Traci Schalow of Carbondale, a representative of the Colorado Backcountry Trail Riders Association, agreed that the travel management plan addresses many of the same issues as Hidden Gems. However, she said, the Forest Service process is at much more thorough and scientific level.
“The public needs to know why the Forest Service is going through such rigorous processes and question why the Hidden Gems is not held to the same standard,” Schalow said. “Seriously, I don’t think half the public even knows the travel management plan exists and there is an alternative to supporting a blanket designation of [342,000] acres of wilderness.”
The Hidden Gems proponents want to add that amount of wilderness in Pitkin, Gunnison, Eagle and Summit counties. U.S. congressional approval is required.
Schalow said the issue for her is much broader than recreational use of areas within the White River National Forest. It’s about fairness. The travel management plan has gone through years of study, and the Forest Service has collected comments from people with all different views. The Hidden Gems used “advertising and propaganda to gain support of the community,” she said.
Shoemaker said there is a simple reason why opponents of Hidden Gems support the travel management plan process rather than the creation of wilderness. Travel management plans for national forests are approved at the administrative level. They can be, and frequently are, amended by organizations that don’t like the outcome, he said.
The Hidden Gems legislation is “a more enduring protection for the landscape,” Shoemaker said.
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