Nearly five years after conservationists went to court over what they saw as 500-plus miles of “unauthorized and unanalyzed routes” scouring the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, land managers have responded with possible courses of action.
Now, interested parties are combing through hundreds of pages of documents and vague maps scoured with color-coded lines, trying to make sense of it all.
“It’s very confusing,” Tom Sobal said from his home in Salida.
On that, his opponents can agree — those who delight in off-road recreation and rose against the lawsuit filed by multiple organizations, including Sobal’s, the Quiet Use Coalition.
Digesting the Draft Environmental Impact Statement has been “hard and overwhelming,” said Patrick McKay, who’s spent more time over it than most, a passionate Jeeper and former lawyer.
“It’s been difficult parsing it out. It just seems kind of ridiculous they expect to come up with a route map for the entire forest in one process like that. It prevents them from giving each area the granular attention they all need.”
But after Nov. 4, when the public comment period ends, it will indeed be the U.S. Forest Service’s task to decide the fate of the Pike and San Isabel’s 2,510.81 miles of roads and trails.
They sprawl through the Front Range and far beyond, providing entry to the foothills of Pikes Peak and those north around Denver, reaching, too, to the high summits south and west: the Collegiate Peaks and Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo ranges.
Complaints from 2011 centered on paths blazed by everyday travelers and roads left from mining and logging days. Now motors were allowed to rumble free — a failure on the Forest Service’s part to protect wildlife and the environment, plaintiffs argued.
Motor-focused groups intervened, including the Colorado Springs-based Trails Preservation Alliance. A settlement was reached in 2015, when the Forest Service agreed to devise a plan within five years.
It might seem like a conflict reserved for off-roaders. “But it’s much bigger than that,” the alliance’s Bill Alspach said.
With potentially hundreds of miles on the chopping block, people could lose access to their favorite camping spot, he said. Or perhaps to their favorite backcountry hike. Perhaps to their favorite overlook or hideaway lake.
Nobody wants that, Sobal said. Those popular, maintained areas, “that’s where (the Forest Service) should focus their money, their limited amount,” he said.
The plan should be about “right-sizing,” said Julie Mach, the Colorado Mountain Club’s conservation director.
“With the funding for the Forest Service, they don’t have the dollars to maintain the routes that they have currently,” she said. “And without that maintenance comes erosion and environmental impacts.”
What that right-sizing could look like is anyone’s guess at this point.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlines five alphabetized “alternatives,” with A calling for the unlikely “no action.” All others reduce total mileage to some extent, including the “proposed action” of C. Routes would be cut by 4% to 2,408.71 miles.
Under that scenario, trails would actually increase, as they would in alternative D. Both options would still diminish roads, though not as significantly as alternatives B and E, slashing mileage by 42% and 51%, respectively.
Environmentalists have sought the closures of “cherry stems,” as Mach puts it — dead-ends or branches to nonmotorized areas. They make up a significant portion of cuts in alternative C.
But the proposals aren’t without contested flashpoints:
• One is Wildcat Canyon or the network known as the Gulches, along the South Platte River north of Lake George. While Teller County adopted some of the roads and opened them in the years after they were gated in the wake of 2002’s Hayman fire, explorers still await portions of Forest Service road to open in Park County.
• Under C, some observers fear the loss of several prized spurs off Mosquito Pass, above Fairplay and Alma.
• They could also lose driving privileges on the road to Twin Cone Peak off Kenosha Pass, popular for fall color viewing.
• And stretches of Rampart Range Road near Monument’s Mount Herman could be seasonally closed, blocking vehicles from popular snow-wheeling.
McKay has voiced most of his concerns over those. Then again, the maps have been hard to read.
“It’s probably going to impact areas nobody’s even thinking about right now,” says Scott Jones, vice president of the Colorado OHV Coalition.
So it’s tough for him to predict how the plan could impact an industry reportedly pumping more than $2 billion into the state’s economy every year. Nonetheless, motorists feel slighted, seeing a preference for trails in proposals that keep them or increase them, while roads are cut.
They foresee another instance of management by closure, as they do in the San Juan National Forest, where feuds have recently intensified. It’s an increasing trend amid growing research spotlighting them as nature wreckers.
But in a 2010 report by federal officials managing travel in the Gunnison Basin, it wasn’t just motorists identified as disrupting wildlife. People on foot, horse and bike were to blame, too.
“Every other recreation group on public lands gets new trails built and has opportunities increased while we keep losing,” McKay said. “Really, it makes it kind of hard to enjoy it. It’s kind of like, I gotta get out while I can, because there’s not gonna be much left in a couple of years.”