DOVE CREEK - It's been almost two months since Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest supervisor, announced that all 25 appeals filed against the Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan had been denied.
The six commissioners of Montezuma and Dolores counties, who all oppose the plan, were left nonplussed by some of the Forest Service's rationale.
Last week in Dove Creek, Stiles tried to answer their questions and repair bridges burned during the contentious, years-long ordeal.
Much of the Boggy-Glade landscape lies north of the county line, so Dolores County commissioner Julie Kibel took the lead asking most questions.
Kibel wondered why scientific evidence used to justify road and trail closures was based on pre-existing studies, some from outside Colorado, instead of brand new field work.
Stiles explained that all studies are done by trained professionals with advanced degrees, and that data collected in other national forests is in many cases transferable.
"With watershed science, the effects of roads on sedimentation are very well-established," he said, citing research from the 2002 Hayman Fire near Colorado Springs. "After six years of monitoring, they found that a one-time runoff event from a severely burned area is less an issue than continual runoff from roads. The (watersheds) cannot recalibrate if you're constantly adding new sediment. We found all the watersheds in Boggy-Glade were at risk, on the verge of (not) being able to maintain soil stability and water quality."
WILL HUNTERS GO ELSEWHERE?
Kibel worried that hunters would avoid the San Juan National Forest if long-used trails, and cross-country travel, were suddenly off limits.
"We couldn't discern any notable economic impact when it came to hunters," Stiles said. "The number of limited draw licenses are already oversubscribed. (The plan) will have little to no effect on them. For over-the-counter applications, there is an argument some people won't come anymore. However, even after this decision, Boggy-Glade is still among the most roaded country we have (in the San Juan National Forest)."
Stiles named motorized game retrieval as a Forest Service concession.
"This is about the only place in a multi-purpose forest with that available," he said, adding for the compromise to remain feasible, the rules must be respected. People wantonly driving ATVs in closed-off areas for non-hunting purposes, or refusing to carry the correct animal tags, could jeopardize the deal.
Stiles also searched for common ground on the topic of dispersed camping. Under the plan, camping more than 300 feet off-road is prohibited. But exceptions could be made for select favorite sites, if sanctioned by the Forest Service as a official dispersed camping site.
"We're not in a hurry to (establish) a bunch of new sites, but it's something to look at. (Rather than) fight human nature, maybe we ought to make it legal so we're not making criminals out of people," he said.
Montezuma County commissioner Keenan Ertel challenged Stiles on wildlife numbers. In the decision notice, trail proliferation and motorized vehicles were blamed for a declining elk population inside Boggy-Glade. Ertel wondered if irrigated fields in the Pleasant View and Cahone areas had lured elk from the forest and changed their migration patterns.
"To extrapolate that the road system caused (dispersal) of elk seems like a real reach. It doesn't connect for me," he said.
Ertel also observed that the hunting season is longer than 30 years ago, saying elk are pursued by hunters "from August to December."
Stiles conceded that hunting is a factor, albeit a secondary one to road density.
"The presence of roads in big game areas has been clearly documented. It spawned a whole new field of conservation biology. If you keep habitats intact, animals act differently than when they're broken up," he said.
With the appeals denied, the only remaining option for opponents is a lawsuit in federal court. Stiles said, to his knowledge, none have filed such a challenge yet.
Kibel said legal action was not on Dolores County's radar, with the brewing battle over Gunnison sage grouse and the Forest Service shifting its attention to the Rico-West Dolores landscape. Montezuma County commissioner Larry Don Suckla couldn't confirm either way, saying the matter needed more discussion, but implied a suit was unlikely given the expense involved.
"I'm not one for giving up on anything. We'll have to see. I have to be aware of taxpayer money being spent wisely. I always want to fight for the freedoms of the people, but also make sure I don't blow their money," Suckla said Friday.
For travel management purposes, the San Juan National Forest is broken into three sections. Mancos-Cortez, which includes areas locally known as Haycamp Mesa, Transfer and Echo Basin, finished in 2008. Boggy-Glade is drawing to a close. The final section, Rico-West Dolores, was successfully appealed once, in December 2009, and requires fresh analysis.
"We're not eager to jump into it (immediately)," said Stiles, who wants to involve the Dolores commissioners as liaisons to Rico and other communities when the plan is revived.
In an interview Friday, Kibel said she looks forward to more talks with Stiles.
"After the meeting, I jokingly told him we've (passed) Forest Service 101, learning how their planning and regulations work. He said they'd take us to 501 level, or however far we want to go," she said. "That, to me, is crucial. If we don't understand (the procedures), fighting them makes no sense."
The impetus for stricter travel management came in 2005. All national forests were told to designate a system of roads and trails, specifying which were open and off-limits to motorized use.