The San Juan National Forest has canceled an environmental analysis of a proposed motorized trail through the Sage Hen area after an active golden eagle’s nest was discovered nearby.
Because the eagle’s nest is within a half-mile buffer zone required under Forest Service regulations to protect the bird, it prevents the motorized access proposal from moving forward, said Forest Recreation Manager Tom Rice.
“The Sage Hen trail (motorized proposal) has been taken off the planning list at this point,” he said.
The nest is in an alcove on a cliff near the switchbacks that descend to the Dolores River. It was found by Forest Service biologists doing field work for the EA. Fresh feathers and whitewash confirm it is active. Also, the nest was recently added onto by the eagle.
Adding motorized use nearby would create a disturbance within the buffer, Rice said. The Forest Service does not want to consider authorizing a new action that may cause harm to the eagle, he said, which could violate the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Because of the topography, relocating the trail outside the half-mile buffer is seen as impractical.
The Sage Hen trail is currently open to non-motorized uses and is popular with hikers and equestrians. Limited motorized use is allowed for power line maintenance, with access from a gate at McPhee Dam.
Montezuma County had proposed that the Forest Service allow public motorized use on a 4.7-mile historic road through Sage Hen in order to provide access to Forest Road 504 below McPhee Dam.
Making the trail open to ATVs and motorcycles from Memorial Day to Labor Day was envisioned as the beginning of a local link to the motorized Rim Rocker Trail that connects Montrose with Moab, and goes through Nucla.
The idea is to add to the local economy by tapping into the multi-day backcountry adventure tours that are becoming popular.
As an alternative, planning is underway to link the county’s portion of the RimRocker trail link via the Boggy Draw network of OHV trails and roads. An economic plus would be recreationists would pass through Dolores on the way to the trailhead.
Rice said the Forest Service is evaluating a plan to widen current OHV routes from 50 inches to 62 inches to accommodate side-by-side off-highway vehicles that are becoming the norm.
The RimRocker spur route would begin at the Boggy Draw Trailhead for the powerline motorized route. It would then connect to other OHV trails and roads toward the Dolores County and San Miguel County portion of the trail and connect to the RimRocker trail at Nucla. Those counties are considering where their portion of the route might be located. Signs will direct trail users along the route, and phone apps could help guide them as well.
Montezuma County commissioners were disappointed about the Sage Hen plan being dropped. Commissioner Jim Candelaria said the proposal’s motorized trail use from Memorial Day to Labor Day avoided the sensitive nesting period when young chicks may be present.
“There would be no use then. I disagree it would cause an impact,” he said.
The commissioners considered fighting to keep the Sage Hen connection alive. They noted their attempt to reduce the buffer for a golden eagle nest on a trail expansion plan at Phil’s World was not successful.
The commissioners were open to the Forest Service looking into the local motorized RimRocker spur beginning at Boggy Draw. County Natural Resource Director James Dietrich said, ideally, the new trail location would connect with the Bradfield Bridge on the Dolores River so it would have economic benefits and access to nearby Dove Creek.
Seasonal closureThe dropped Sage Hen environmental assessment for the motorized trail included a forest proposal to implement a seasonal closure for all uses at Sage Hen from Dec. 1 to April 30 to protect critical big-game winter habitat.
Rice said the forest plan authorizes the seasonal closure at Sage Hen, but it has not been implemented. It will be considered as part of the upcoming planning process for the proposed expanded OHV route at Boggy Draw for the RimRocker spur.