Some in southwestern Colorado want forest plan axed

Since Jan. 15, Douglas Maxwell of Cortez has been protesting the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to close some roads in the San Juan National Forest.

DOLORES — A “spiderweb” of trails and off-highway-vehicle routes on parts of the San Juan National Forest needs to be cleaned up, forest officials say.

Critics of the plan, however, see more than a mere tug at the web as the U.S. Forest Service tries to soften the human footprint — and tire tracks — on the forest.

So angry are some that they appropriated the venerable Smokey Bear mascot of the Forest Service and transformed him into “Smok-E the Bandit,” dressed up as a highwayman complete with mask and firearm. He’s backed by an American flag, Colorado flag and the Gadsden flag, the banner adopted by the tea party movement, emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t tread on me.”

“Smok-E” guards,  some might say haunts — the turnoff to the Dolores Public Lands Office, calling attention to a sign on which Douglas Maxwell lists all of the things he said no longer would be allowed if a proposed travel-management plan is allowed to go into effect.

Maxwell admits to some hyperbole, pointing to “tree hugging,” the first item on his list of the activities that he warns are soon to be prohibited on the San Juan National Forest.

“I put that in there to make a point,” Maxwell said with a sly smile.

Maxwell, however, said he’s serious about the other activities he fears will soon be banned, from fishing to hunting, and said nothing less than the lifestyle of his contemporaries and their families is at stake.

“Eventually you’re not even going to be allowed on the forest,” Maxwell said.

The dispute, which stems from a national travel rule established by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2005, has drawn attention that reaches beyond questions of how the federal government should manage lands.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” which bills itself as the nation’s “preeminent periodical monitoring the radical right in the U.S.,” is working on a story about the opposition to the proposed forest-management changes, said Dennis Atwater, who said he was interviewed by the publication.

“They’ll trash us,” Atwater said.

A story is being prepared for publication later this spring, Intelligence Report editor Mark Potok said in an email, “But we just can’t comment right now about a story that is nowhere near completion.”

The Utah-based authors of “Statehood: The Territorial Imperative,” also last week met with southwest Colorado residents looking for ways to rein in the federal government, many of them upset with the pending closures in the San Juan National Forest.

“The federal government is obligated to extinguish title and vacate the premises” of many, if not all, of the lands managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, one of the authors, Bill Howell, said. Howell also is the executive director of the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is the government has no constitutional authority to retain federal ownership” of those lands and is obligated to turn them over to the state.

The Bush administration change to forest management reversed the way many managers and more forest users have long perceived the ways they can use the forest, said James Dietrich, federal lands coordinator for Montezuma County, one of the two counties, along with Dolores County, affected by the proposed forest-management changes.

The change reversed the presumption that forest users, particularly those on off-highway vehicles, could go anywhere on the forest where they weren’t prohibited.

Motorized travel now is to be allowed only on designated routes.

“Now everything is closed unless it’s been signed as open,” Dietrich said.

The import of the change wasn’t readily apparent to forest users, Dietrich said.

Few, in fact, took note when officials changed the forest travel rules in what is termed the Mancos-Dolores section of the forest, and it wasn’t until the comment period actually ended for the changes on what is termed the Boggy-Glade travel-management plan that Atwater, Maxwell and others leaped into the fray, coordinating a march on the land office in January.

When many users did realize the significance of the change, “It came as a shock to the system,” Dietrich said.

Longtime users of the forest headed to places where they had camped for 40 years, only to find that the site no longer could be used.

“People resent that,” Dietrich said.

There is more to the dispute over access than camping and recreation, according to Atwater, a retired executive with Sears and Discover Card.

While issues such as the ability of hunters to use ATVs to retrieve downed game or anglers to get into casting distance of hidden lakes and brooks are important, the major issue is one of process, Atwater said.

The Forest Service is ignoring the issue of an 1866 federal law intended to encourage settlement of the American West, Atwater said, referring to Revised Statute 2477, which says in its entirety, “The right of way for the construction of highways across public lands not otherwise reserved for public purposes is hereby granted.”

In closing many of strands of the “spider web” of paths, trails, routes and roads across the forest, Atwater said, the Forest Service is exceeding its authority.

It is, moreover, jeopardizing the multiple-use mission of the forest and threatening the sustained yield of wood, game and other forest products, Atwater said.

That’s especially true for many residents in Montezuma and Dolores counties, where the forest provides sustenance, such as elk for the freezer to tide them over the winter, recreation and escape, Atwater said.

“When I go to the forest, I’m renewing my soul,” he said.

Others, however, need more than that, and bans on the retrieval of downed game with ATVs threaten to drive away hunters, locals and well-heeled out-of-staters, Atwater said.

“People make their livelihood off these lands. We’re going to fight this till hell freezes over,” he said, “and then we’re going to fight it on the ice.”

Uncontrolled access across the forest, however, has had dire consequences for wildlife and watershed values, said Deborah Kill, a planner for the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest.

Forest managers would have had to act much as they have even without the 2005 travel rule, Kill said.

Even so, District Ranger Steve Beverlin said, the forest has gone out of its way to cooperate with users.

He agreed to a spur off a recognized route to accommodate a particular hunter’s ability to continue camping at a site he has used for years, Beverlin said. He also is working with people who depend on the forest for firewood, he said.

His primary responsibility, though, is to carry out Forest Service policy and within the limits of that policy try to find ways to accommodate users, Beverlin said.

Atwater’s frustration is partly with the counties, which he said have failed to seize the kind of negotiating equality, or “coordination,” that he says is available under federal law.

Federal officials listen to public comments and file them but aren’t required to account for them in policy decisions, Atwater said.

To be sure, federal law requires him and other federal managers to “coordinate to the extent practical” with local officials and others, Beverlin said. “To me, that means we are legally required to meet with the counties and public and provide an open forum and discussion on issues we’re analyzing.”

The great irony in the tug and pull over the Boggy-Glade travel-management plan, Beverlin noted, is that appeals filed by critics require a new round of public comment. The critic in this case, however, was the Colorado chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which was displeased with the plan because it left too many roads in place.

“Roads and motorized travel and elk do not get along,” said a member of the organization and “fairly avid hunter,” Bob Marion of Mancos.

Elk, which in previous years stayed in the forest on the migration to warmer winter climates, pass through the forest without stopping, Marion said.

The travel plan as drafted violated the forest plan by proposing a road density greater than allowed by the forest plan, and it proposed an off-highway-vehicle trail in a winter wildlife-management area, Marion said.

“In the long run, they have to look at wildlife-security areas, and they did their analysis (relying) on not-the-best-available science,” Marion said.

One organization relatively satisfied with the Boggy-Glade travel-management plan was the San Juan Trail Riders, an off-highway-vehicle association.

“We felt we were heard and had every opportunity to comment, and the end result was not far off from what we thought was fair,” association President Gary Wilkinson said.

As the 2005 travel rule makes its way through the national forest system, similar reactions are likely when federal managers start enforcement, Wilkinson said.

Managers of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, however, have just completed their travel-management plans, Forest Service spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe said.

“This whole southwest Colorado area has become quite contentious,” Wilkinson said. “I think what you’re seeing in southwest Colorado is going to be a groundswell across the United States, and I think it’s good. It’s people exercising their rights.”


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