ASHLEY NATIONAL FOREST TRAVEL PLANNING
The Ashley National Forest has initiated its travel management planning process. In many ways this process is far more important than the ongoing forest plan (see related note) as travel management planning has become nothing more than a pre-determined process to allow ever-increasing ATV (all terrain vehicles)/ OHV (off highway vehicles) use.
To give you an idea of just how far backward travel management planning has gone, the national regulations driving this present process do not even require the Forest Service to analyze snowmobile use. That is no longer considered a manageable use and is generally allowed anywhere—roadless areas, proposed wildernesses, and illegally occurring wherever snowmobilers decide to go with little or no law enforcement or management guidance!
Late in 2003 the Ashley National Forest issued a forest order to close the Vernal Ranger District to cross country motorized travel. The other two districts, Duchesne/ Roosevelt and Flaming Gorge, had already made such closures through previous travel management plans. The order was issued by then Forest Supervisor George Weldon to try and stymie the ever-increasing illegal ATV/OHV use and increasing resource damage and to “...reduce the number of user-created trails and roads...” and to require motorized use occur on “designated roads and trails...” While decades later and after years of pleading for such an action, we applauded the Ashley for this step.
The Vernal Ranger District Travel Map shows, however, a large area of the Vernal Ranger District, while closed to cross-country travel, which is consistent with the ’03 order, open to motorized vehicles on designated routes AND “undesignated routes as long as resource damage is not occurring.” Designated routes are obviously those created by the Forest Service for a particular kind of use and are clearly marked on the Forest Road and Trail Atlas. Undesignated routes are those created by users, in this case ATV/ OHV users. They are illegally created routes not subject to management and planning considerations including public input and resource issues or constraints. We can find no record as to how the decision was made by the Forest Service to allow motorized use to continue on illegal user created routes. It is precisely the dilemma the closure order attempted to address. In meetings with the Ashley, we were met with blank looks and iterations of we don’t know.
At the 28 June Ashley travel planning meeting in SLC, we specifically asked if the Ashley knew how many miles of these specific illegal-user-created-routes exist (those creating resource damage and those that aren’t) and how many have been created since the 2003 closure order. The answer from the travel team leader was, in essence, we don’t know, but there are lots of them.
At the same meeting a question was asked about when an illegal-user-created-route becomes an illegal, undesignated route treated as though it is designated and open to motorized use as defined by the travel map. The answer was clear from the Public Affairs Officer: the first person making the route is illegal, but when it is used by others it becomes a legitimate illegal-user-created-route, in essence, designated on the area in question on the Vernal Ranger District.
While travel planning law enforcement is attentive, it is noted by the Ashley that law enforcement is, to say the least, sparse and largely dependent upon voluntary compliance. Ironically, there is no incentive for compliance if the Vernal Ranger District has as its fundamental policy a decision to allow illegal-user-created routes to be used as designated routes. The disconnect seems profoundly obvious to all except the Ashley.
The Ashley National Forest notes that all of these routes will be analyzed through the travel management planning process. The problems is, of course, they will be considered and analyzed in the context of open routes. With remarkable irony, at the SLC travel planning meeting, it was noted by the Ashley representatives and recognized by almost all at the SLC meeting that once a route is created and used it is very difficult to close. We have noted that ad nauseam for decade after decade and are frustrated that the Ashley National Forest doesn’t seem to understand this obvious connection.
ATV/OHV users simply argue these roads are now in use and to close them would restrict opportunities, thus giving those groups and illegally created routes a status that assures these routes will be analyzed as legal routes from the inception of the planning process when, in fact, they don’t legally exist on the Ashley National Forest.
We have no problems with these routes being submitted as proposed routes to professional forest managers and planners and analyzed against the backdrop of landscape constraints and a broad array of user issues.
The extant issue, however, is simple--the Ashley insists that a certain group of users who see the forest as their recreational backyard are allowed to create motorized routes and have them adopted by the Ashley as designated routes without the formal analysis supposedly provided by forest managers, planners and public involvement. Starting the process with these illegal-user-created-routes officially recognized, having never been analyzed, is inappropriate and literally negates the whole concept of travel management planning.
In essence, the Ashley has abrogated its management and planning responsibilities by allowing a select group of users to create their own illegal motorized trail systems and have them officially, or, at least, by default, designated as legal routes, thus escaping the basic required planning and management. It is wrong at every level.
As part of this travel planning process we offered an alternative which would assure that all inventoried roadless areas harbor no routes or trails open to motorized traffic. This assures a true diversity in travel management planning, assures sensitive landscapes will not be open to possible environmental degradation, assures ecological diversity, wildlife protection, and truly creates opportunities that are diverse and engaged.
This should not be perceived as a blanket support for OHV/ATV use on the majority of the Ashley National Forest (roadless areas, of course, constitute less than half of the acreage on the Ashley) because on the roaded portions of the forest there are also crucial values not consistent with ATV/OHV use as well. But it assures ATV/OHV use will be focused on the areas where it already occurs on clearly designed and designated routes where landscape/ environmental values are more consistent with the kind of use and impacts ATVs/OHVs create.
The Ashley's response has been exactly what we predicted. They provided us a copy of past travel management plans (‘90-’94), all of which we have, and all of which allowed, with growing but minor restrictions, cross country travel and user created routes. We participated in all of these efforts and asked for elimination of cross-country routes, citing the very problems now faced by the forest and an end to cross-country travel. Acting as good bureaucrats, on the one hand, and woeful land managers on the other--well, maybe that is the same hand-- the agency simply has decided what it did in the past, irrespective of how wrong it is now, is what it will continue to do!
At the end of March the U.S. District Court for Northern California enjoined the Forest Service from implementing the 2005 forest plan rules (see, for example, HUPC LYNX 2/05) finding the Forest Service had not properly involved the public and had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Thus the Ashley plan is on hold for an undetermined time while still processing “certain analyses that are required under the National Forest Management Act independent of any specific planning rule.... Examples of activities that are required regardless of the planning rule in effect include analysis of existing conditions and trends, identification of issues, and evaluation of potential wilderness areas.”