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Winter travel changes likely in Rio Grande National Forest

Despite a 2015 ruling mandating regulations on motorized use, there is still no plan
James Gallegos of Pagosa Springs rides his snowmobile on Wolf Creek Pass. Excluding wilderness areas, most of the forest remains open to snowmobile use despite a 2015 federal rule that dictates that lands will be closed unless designated open to motorized use by forest managers. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A management plan for winter recreation activities may be coming to Wolf Creek Pass and the surrounding forest lands as the result of a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and advocacy groups representing the interests of human-powered backcountry recreationalists.

“If we don’t limit snowmobile access, we’re going to compromise other uses and wildlife habitat,” said Public Lands Program Manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance John Rader.

San Luis Valley Ecosystems Council, SJCA, The Wilderness Society, WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild joined forces in November 2021 when they filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the forest supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest. Their complaint cites inadequate protections for the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly and the Canada lynx, as well as increasing instances and potential for conflict between motorized and nonmotorized users.

One of three lynx seen in March 2015 just north of Molas Pass, in the San Juan National Forest. The mountain range is critical habitat for the endangered species. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Now, it appears the parties are close to a settlement.

The lawsuit sets its crosshairs on the 2020 revised forest management plan for the RGNF. According to a brief filed in August, the plaintiffs allege that in creating the plan, the forest’s managers failed to comply with a 2012 rule by “failing to include plan components for winter recreation,” and because “plan components … do not contribute to the recovery of the (Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly).” They also allege that the USFS violated the National Environmental Protection Act by failing to “take the requisite hard look at the effects” of the plan on the lynx and butterfly.

Climate change may be the most significant threat to the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, which lives at elevations between 12,000 and 13,600 feet. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The argument is predicated upon the allegation that the USFS failed to follow the proper procedural requirements and fulfill its legal planning obligation. Although a plan to manage winter travel has been required since 2015, the forest still does not have any such plan. The plaintiffs’ intention is to ensure adequate protection for the two endangered species and reduce the potential for inter-user conflict.

Procedural and legal background

Much of the contention in this case stems from the lack of action with respect to a 2005 regulation known as the Travel Management Rule. It requires that forest managers designate which roads and areas are open to motorized use and states that areas are closed to motorized use unless otherwise stated.

A 2015 lawsuit reversed a previous exemption for snowmobiles, decreeing that over snow vehicles are subject to the rule and that forests must create winter travel management plans.

Under the 1976 National Forest Management Act and the 2012 planning rule developed as a statutory requirement of that law, national forests are legally obligated to create forest management plans every 15 years. Such plans outline where certain use types may occur in a national forest.

Snowshoers head off on the south side of Wolf Creek Pass across the snowmobile tracks on Jan. 4. As more nonmotorized users take to the snow, conflicts with snow mobiles have increased. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Although the 2012 planning rule does not specifically mandate that travel management planning be a part of the forest management plan, the former must be in compliance with the latter.

It is for this reason, according to Rio Grande National Forest spokesman Gregg Goodland, that the forest opted to postpone developing a plan to manage winter travel until the forest management plan was complete.

“Early in the land management planning process, the Forest indicated that Travel Management Planning would be conducted subsequent to revising the Land Management Plan,” Goodland said in a statement emailed to The Durango Herald. “The intent was to direct focus on revising the forest plan which has many complexities and iterations, and then focus our efforts on travel management planning.”

Protection of endangered species

The lawsuit alleges that the most recent revision of the RGNF’s forest management plan, adopted in 2020, failed to incorporate the most recent science and failed to consider alternatives to protect the Lynx.

Plaintiffs have proposed a 22,300-acre special management area for the lynx around Wolf Creek Pass. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The endangered forest carnivore has unique paws that allow it to easily travel over uncompacted snow. Compacted snow, the result of snowmobiles, among other factors, can allow other predators to access lynx habitat creating new competition for food. The plaintiff’s petition cites instances in which the USFS relied on old data regarding the intensity of snowmobile usage as well as the impact of the spruce beetle on lynx habitat.

Wolf Creek Pass is a critical linkage area for the lynx, and the plaintiffs have proposed a 22,300-acre expansion of the special management area on the pass.

“A special management area does not mean it’s closed to access,” Rader said. “Just that it is managed with special recognition of the lynx. The intention is to avoid habitat fragmentation.”

The habitat of the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly is restricted to isolated alpine habitats in the San Juan Mountains and is imperiled by humans over-collecting the species, off-trail use and climate change, among other factors.

The plaintiffs allege that the forest plan violated NEPA when it failed to provide specific plans to aid in the recovery of the species.

Although the USFS does not comment on pending litigation, the agency denied any violation of federal law in its response to the lawsuit.

Avoiding user conflict

Arguably the more contentious element of litigation is the restrictions on motorized winter recreation that could follow from a potential settlement.

A handful of organizations stepped up as intervenor defendants in the case, including the Colorado Snowmobile Association and the Trails Preservation Alliance. These organizations, representing the interests of motorized backcountry users, hope to avoid further restrictions to the land.

Rader, representatives of the Winter Wildlands Alliance and other interested parties, including CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area Davey Pitcher, have called on forest supervisors of the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests to restrict snowmobile access.

Although agency officials have said the process would begin following the finalization of the forest management plan, Rader said they had drawn the process out too much.

“They need to be doing this yesterday,” Rader said. “They have a legal responsibility to be doing it yesterday, and its supposed to be a proactive policy and right now they are reacting to existing conflicts.”

All parties involved in litigation filed by environmentalists and advocacy groups against the U.S. Forest Service have taken solution-oriented stances and hope to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In a letter sent to forest supervisors in September, Pitcher, Rader and WWA Policy Director Hilary Eisen said that “the ski area’s existing permit boundary is continually infringed upon by very aggressive over snow vehicle users, raising serious concerns about the safety of WCSA guests.”

In an interview with the Herald, Pitcher said the motorized incursions have occurred over the last 15 years, although last year was exceptionally bad; incursions occurred almost daily for several weeks.

“Our position with all of this is to try to work with the snowmobile community, the Forest Service and the conservation groups and come up with some solutions that are amenable to everybody,” Pitcher said.

Parties pushing for the hasty implementation of a winter travel plan say that conflict between motorized and nonmotorized users is on the rise, but remains low enough in intensity that all parties are acting in good faith. But, they say, those conditions are changing.

“The technology has changed so radically in the last 10 to 15 years, these new machines can almost go anywhere, so they do,” said Michael Whiting, Colorado policy manager at WWA. “That becomes a problem for the other 95% of the users of the forest.”

Although nobody stated an interest in excluding motorized users, Whiting and Rader both note that motorized access must be balanced against impacts. Newer, more capable snowmobiles and the surging popularity of timbersleds – dirtbike-like vehicles with a ski in the front and a track in the back – are behind the growing impact of motorized users.

But Scott Jones, executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, does not entirely agree with this characterization. He said snow conditions are much more a determining factor of where motorized vehicles can go.

“I don’t see that technology being the game changer that some want it to be in terms of discussions,” he said.

He, too, recognizes motorized user infringing on the ski area boundary as an issue and, like Whiting and Rader, wants to work with the forest managers to solve the problem.

However, Jones does not see widespread restriction as necessary or warranted.

“There’s piles of opportunity for solitude and nonmotorized opportunities and that kind of stuff – it’s all over in that (Wolf Creek Pass) neck of the woods in the wilderness,” he said. “Some of it’s very difficult to get to, but solitude is something other than public land – that’s usually private land.”

Backcountry skiing has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the outdoor recreation industry, which has contributed to the increase in conflict between users in popular zones such as Wolf Creek Pass. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Judi Perez, a strategic planner with the RGNF, said she is unsure when the planning process for a travel management plan will start, but that it is in the works. She and Rader both said there has been discussion of conducting planning at a regional level so that winter travel restrictions can be consistent in transboundary zones, such as Wolf Creek Pass, which abuts both the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests.

She said the process will be driven by public input, something Whiting and Rader are already working to provide by collecting user data.

“This was always the next step for us,” Perez said. “ … We may have gotten there a little bit sooner because of the litigation … but it was always the next step.”

Although Rader feels the plan was not a priority for the forest, he, Whiting and Pitcher all espoused the belief that all parties can arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution.

“Hopefully, there’s a map of areas you can go that are fun and appropriate and aren’t going to have conflicts with other users and wildlife,” Rader said. “Hopefully, it will be an asset to the snowmobile community as well.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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