Motorcycle and land access groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the San Juan National Forest over new trail recreation rules that reduce motorized trail use.
San Juan Trail Riders, based in Durango, along with national groups Trails Preservation Alliance and Access Preservation Association, ask the court to set aside a record of decision by the Dolores Ranger District that closed 30 miles of trails to motorcycles and implemented restrictions on others within Rico-West Dolores recreation area.
According to the lawsuit, filed Sept. 14, the reduction in single-track motorcycle trails from 114 miles to 84 miles will “greatly impact the connectivity, ability to ride loops, aesthetic experience and safety for motorcycle users in the area.”
The decision to reduce single-track motorized travel is “unsupported by logic and contrary to law,” the lawsuit states, and will create “substantial adverse impacts” to motorized recreationists.
Plaintiffs argue the closed trails have “received environmentally conscious and sustainable motorcycle travel for over 40 years.” It claims the decision to close trails to motorcycles coincides with the “wish list” of quiet users and the Dunton Hot Springs resort. According to the lawsuit, new motorized closures at Bear Creek trail, the Burnett and Horse Creek trails near Rico, and the Ryman Creek Trail prevents desirable loop rides and shuts down access to the area for riders in the Telluride area.
The trail groups objected to the previous draft record of decision, and the Forest Service explored alternative scenarios, but the issues could not be resolved, and the new closures were put in place beginning Oct. 1.
“Plaintiffs have little recourse but to seek judicial action to set aside and declare unlawful at least certain aspects of the decision,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit lists eight counts alleging improper Forest Service action in the final trail decision, and that it lacks evidence. The suit includes claims that:
The decision was an “arbitrary and capricious imposition of motorized travel restrictions.” It claims reasons for closings and timing restrictions for motorcyclists – such as to enhance elk habitat, improve the hunter experience and protect the watershed – are inconsistent or undocumented.The decision lacks site-specific analysis to support travel restrictions for motorcyclists, which “is particularly important when changing long-established uses. Imposing excessive or poorly considered restrictions can have the effect of concentrating uses that threaten to exceed an area’s carrying capacity” and create new levels of impacts in remaining areas.The decision improperly relied on user conflict to justify motorized travel restrictions. “Defendants improperly considered a vague or generalized sense of ‘user conflict’ through which some area visitor might have a preference for some abstract recreational opportunity.”The decision improperly restricted access to Rico. The decision closed motorized access to the Burnett Trail and Horse Creek Trail, and supporting documents cited that was the preference of Rico Town officials. But the lawsuit said the decision unfairly closes all motorcycle trail access to Rico and forces riders to use Colorado 145, creating a potential safety hazard for motorcyclists on trail bikes. It states the decision could backfire and cause additional motorcycle traffic through Rico as users attempt to access the Burnett Trail, then backtrack through town when they find the access is closed to motorized.The decision is inconsistent with the 2013 San Juan Forest Plan that contemplates shared use of trails “based on mutual courtesy and on a strong stewardship ethic that is primarily self-enforced and maintained by individuals ans user groups.” The directive “points toward collaboration between motorized, mechanized and nonmotorized groups.“Trail use decisionUnder the new rules as described in Alternative B of the environmental impact statement, motorized use will no longer be allowed on the Little Bear trail and most of the main Bear Creek trail, including the lower portion. A 1.7-mile section in the middle of the Bear Creek trail remains open to motorcycles to provide a connection between the motorized Gold Run and Grindstone Trails. The connection allows motorcyclists to travel on trails from the Haycamp area to the Rico-West Dolores region.
Near Rico, the Burnett Creek, Horse Creek and Ryman Creek trails will all be closed to motorized use. West of Forest Road 471 and near Dunton Hot Springs, the Winter Trail and lower portions of the East and West Fall Creek trails will also be closed to motorized uses.
The trails have historically been allowed for use by single-track motorcycle riders.
The East Fork trail, Calico trail and its connectors, and trails near Taylor Mesa and Stoner Mesa will maintain their single-track motorized access.
The plan adds back some of the lost motorized trails by incorporating 12 new miles of trail for ATV and side-by-side UTV use in the Lone Cone, Groundhog and Black Mesa areas.
Single-track motorized use also has been added to the Loading Pen No. 738 trail. And at Bolam Pass, a section of Forest Road 578B will be converted to single-track motorized to provide connection to the East Fork trail.
Other trails that continue their motorized designation are: East Fork, Gold Run, Grindstone, West Fall Creek, Calico North and Calico South, Eagle Peak, Johnny Bull, Priest Gulch, Stoner Mesa, East Twin Springs, West Twin Springs, the section of Bear Creek from Gold Run to Grindstone, and Rough Canyon.
The decision implements seasonal restrictions for motorized use on trails to accommodate hunters and reduce impacts to big game wildlife and their young in winter and spring.
For motorized trails, use will be allowed from June 1 to Oct. 31 and prohibited from Nov. 1 to May 31.
Seasonal restrictions for Black Mesa OHV trails are longer, with motorized use prohibited from Sept. 8 to May 31.
“This was done to accommodate walk-in hunters for the last two rifle seasons,” said forest environmental planner Debbie Kill.
A rough trail forwardTrail plans can be controversial, and this one had its share since it was released in 2009. In 2010, public objections that it did not have enough environmental analysis forced forest officials to start over. Then a lawsuit by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Colorado Chapter challenged the legality of 14 existing motorized trails, claiming their impacts were not properly analyzed.
But in 2015, a U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit and upheld the decision to allow motorized on the trails. The opinion was written by Appeals Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who was later confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Montezuma County commissioners and motorized groups fought hard to keep Bear Creek and Burnett Creek trails open to motorized uses, but it did not happen. Single-track motorcyclists enjoy accessing Rico from the Calico Trail via Burnett Creek, proponents said. But Rico officials said they wanted it closed to motorized vehicles to reduce noise and traffic, and forest officials agreed.
The commissioners passed a resolution asserting the Bear and Burnett trails, plus other routes, are county rights of way, claiming they are on historic maps from before the national forest was formed in 1905. Forest officials say the county has to prove its claims in court.
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