Group sues forest service over trails

Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011 12:44 AM

The controversy over travel management in the San Juan National Forest has landed in federal court via a lawsuit filed by the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District Colorado on Dec. 2, names the U.S. Forest Service, forest service Chief Thomas Tidwell, and San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles as defendants in a “complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief and petition for review of agency action,” according to the court papers.

At the heart of the suit is the CBHA’s assertion that the forest service has unlawfully authorized off-road vehicle use on 14 trails — 80 miles — in the Rico-West Dolores travel management area. The Rico-West Dolores area covers 244,550 acres, encompassing federal lands surrounding Bear Creek, Taylor Mesa, and around Rico and Dunton, Black Mesa and Stoner Mesa.

The Rico-West Dolores travel management plan was initiated in 2008, and a plan was unveiled in September 2009. The plan was reversed in December 2009 for failure to properly analyze impacts of the plan. Due to other priorities, the forest service returned the Rico-West Dolores landscape to 2005 travel management rules. Officials intend to begin work on the plan again in 2012.

The CBHA complaint states the 14 trails at the heart of the lawsuit are closed to motorized vehicles under the San Juan Public Lands Draft Management Plan and yet “the Forest Service has permitted and encouraged the use of two-wheeled ORV’s (i.e., motorcycles) on these trails.” The 14 trails in question consist of two major trail networks, Calico and Bear Creek, as well as Ryman Creek and Stoner Creek.

The lawsuit claims OHV use on the 14 specific trails violates the National Environmental Policy Act due to a lack of an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, violates the National Forest Management Act and the management plan for the San Juan National Forest, and violates Executive Orders 11644 and 11989, both of which address motorized vehicle use on public lands.

“It is really only the single-track motorized use that we have a problem with, which is an important distinction here locally,” said CBHA member Robert Marion, of Mancos. “We are talking about trails, not roads. The issue is getting the use designation of those 14 trails changed to agree with the existing designation in place in the San Juan National Forest plan. Right now, those trails are in violation of that plan.”

Marion said the concerns raised by CBHA in the lawsuit have less to do with limiting access to the forest and more to do with habitat protection and expanding hunting opportunities.

The group contends the presence of motorized vehicles in known big game habitat areas negatively impacts herds.

“It is fairly well documented, in fact it is almost undebated, that motorized traffic moves elk away from habitat areas,” Marion said. “A lot of these areas we are talking about are up above tree line and noise carries a long way. I’ve seen it myself where the elk are there before motorized traffic and then they are driven to other lands, basically removing them from where they need to be.

Marion said CBHA also advocates for traditional use of public lands, including hunting on horseback and foot.

“Motorized traffic has been up there for the past 10 years, which is changing all of those traditional uses,” he said. “We would like to protect the traditional uses that have been up there for generations.”

In terms of relief, the lawsuit seeks declarations that the forest service violated the NEPA and Executive Orders 11644 and 11989, as well as the San Juan National Forest plan, and asks the court to enjoin the forest service from “continuing to authorize and encourage ORV use on the trails.”

San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles and Dolores Public Land Office Acting District Ranger Mark Lambert were unable to be reached for comment by press time. Forest service Public Affairs Specialist Ann Bond said it is forest service policy not to comment on pending litigation.

The forest service also faced controversy over the Boggy-Glade travel management plan, which encompasses approximately 245,800 acres of national forest north of Dolores. The modified alternative was released in October, and forest service officials hope to begin implementation in early 2012.

On the Net: San Juan National Forest Dolores Public Lands Office Motorized Roads and Trails,

Reach Kimberly Benedict at

Forest lawsuit

Allegations against the U.S. Forest Service:
14 trails — 80 miles — should not allow motorized use.
Trails are designated nonmotorized yet are part of two-track motorized travel.
Violations of National Forest Management Act, San Juan National Forest plan, Executive Orders 11644 and 11989.