The public comment period for the long-debated Rico-West Dolores Travel Management Plan ends on Aug. 20, and the San Juan National Forest is hoping that the third time is a charm.
The plan’s most-watched component would determine which trails would allow single-track motorcycle use on the 244,500-acre section of forest stretching from the West Dolores River to Lizard Head Pass.
Plan documents, maps and a comment for can be viewed on the San Juan National Forest website under “News and Events.”
The hotly debated travel plan was first released in 2009, but after public objections that the analysis was inadequate were upheld by a federal review board, forest officials were ordered start over.
Then in 2010, single-track motorcycle use on trails in the Rico-West Dolores area became the basis for a lawsuit filed by the Colorado Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The group said 14 trails designated for motorized use were not adequately analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act. But the federal courts disagreed, saying the forest had documentation dating to 1999 designating the trails for motorized use.
The group also lost on appeal to the U.S. District Court of Appeals, with Judge Neil M. Gorsuch writing the opinion in favor of the San Juan Forest. Gorsuch has since been confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court judge.
In 2014, the forest restarted the public process for travel management in the Rico-West Dolores District and released an environmental impact statement with several proposed alternatives. Public meetings were held on the various plans, and public comment was recorded.
In November 2016, a draft decision was pending by forest officials when they realized the plan did not specify that the forest’s minimum road standards would be included in a final decision.
“From a procedural standpoint, someone could make the case that we never notified the public that a decision would be made on that,” said Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla.
The minimum road system standard is described as the fewest number of roads the forest needs to manage the forest for all different purposes. The decision is a requirement of all travel management plans.
Forest planner Debbie Kill said the new information on the minimum road system is in Chapter 3, Environmental Consequences.
“The five alternatives described in the first draft EIS have not changed, and it is not necessary to resubmit comments that would repeat previous input about particular roads or trails,” she said.
How to balance needs of single-track motorized uses with those of quiet users has been the main thrust of five plan alternatives proposed by the forest.
The area includes the Rico Mountains, Lizard Head Pass and popular trails such as Bear Creek, Calico, Taylor and Stoner mesas, Winter, Burnett Creek, Ryman Creek, and others used by hikers, motorcyclists, bikers, hunters and equestrians.
Single-track motorcycle users expressed frustration at alternatives that propose closing Calico, Bear Creek, Ryman Creek, Burnett Creek, the Winter Trail, and others, to motorcycle use.
“I grew up here, and they are proposing to take away the larger loops we have ridden and enjoyed for decades,” said Curtis Cowen, of Timberline Trailriders. “Our group does a lot of trail maintenance that benefits everyone.”
Others want less motorcycle access on trails to reduce noise, traffic, and impacts on wildlife and hunting.
One area of contention is the Burnett Creek Trail, which is open to motorcycles but could be closed under the plan.
The trail connects with the Burnett Road leading into the town of Rico from the west, but the town has complained about motorcycle impacts in town. One alternative proposes to create a connector trail that would direct motorcycles from the end of the Burnett trail to the old Rio Grande Southern railroad bed. From there, motorcyclists could cross the Montelores bridge and ride Colorado Highway 145 to Rico. However, the trail reroute would be voluntary.
“We’d prefer that the Burnett Trail be closed to motorcycle use because of the traffic impact when they drop into our residential neighborhoods,” said Mike Curran, of Rico, during a meeting last June.