Deep in the heart of Pike & San Isabel National Forests (PSI) are thousands of winding and bifurcating passages resembling an intricate network of arteries and veins.
These 2,500-plus miles of trails and roads in forestlands spanning 15 Colorado counties transport nature lovers and recreationists to and from some of their favorite outdoor destinations, and serve as an entrypoint to Colorado’s treasured national parks.
But in the near future, that transportation system likely will undergo significant changes as authorities with the U.S. Forest Service weigh proposed measures that will dictate what roads and trails can be used by motorized vehicles in coming years.
The impending decision comes nine years after local conservation groups — The Wilderness Society, Quiet Use Coalition, Wild Earth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild and Great Old Broads for Wilderness — brought a lawsuit alleging that PSI had not properly conducted environmental analyses or sought required public input on motorized access to certain roads, trails and areas.
The lawsuit also alleged that PSI was not in compliance with federal regulations in publishing its Motor Vehicle Use Maps.
So in 2015, a settlement was reached that stipulated the drafting of an Environmental Impact Statement in which the Forest Service would reevaluate what routes should remain open for future public motor vehicle use.
For its part in restructuring the travel management plan, the Forest Service is seeking to: “Reduce environmental impacts associated with public motor vehicle use on National Forest System lands,” “Allow for a sustainable system of roads, trails and areas for public motorized use,” and “Create opportunities for long-term [off-highway vehicle] use while protecting natural and cultural resources,” according to promotional materials drafted by the Forest Service to explain the EIS process.
Conservation groups, on the other hand, are seeking to protect vital natural resources and wildlife species while ensuring the new travel management plan adheres to federal environmental regulations, such as the National Environmental Policy Act.
Whatever decision is ultimately made could have lasting economic implications on how Coloradans and tourists enjoy the popular national forestlands, as well as environmental implications for natural resources and the wildlife species living in PSI.
A top concern for wildlife advocates and environmentalists is the disruption of habitat for several threatened or potentially threatened species, including the Gunnison sage grouse, Mexican spotted owl, Canada lynx, North American wolverine, Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and greenback cutthroat trout.
And with Colorado’s rapidly growing population, those impacts could be further exacerbated by more people flocking to the state’s national parks.
According to 2016 figures from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Colorado was expected to see a more than 34 percent growth in population over 20 years, with the 2016 population of 5.53 million expected to grow to 7.44 million by 2036.
“With population growth, not only do we have this increased demand for recreation opportunities, but we’re really going to have an increased demand for clean water and natural resources,” said Julie Mach, the conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club.
“So the water implication is one that jumps out to me. Roads have a really heavy impact on water quality because they are so prone to erosion and sedimentation of waterways.
“That impacts not only the local creeks and the fish in those creeks, but when those creeks dump into reservoirs, that sediment builds up and that becomes a cost in terms of not being able to store as much water, and also in having to clean out that sediment on a regular basis. So I think that’s where we’ve got a major concern.”
There are also potentially lasting economic impacts for the Centennial State, where the business of outdoor recreation is robust and booming.
More than 4.4 million people visited PSI in 2016 alone, according to the Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring Program, and the industry contributes $28 billion in consumer spending, 229,000 jobs and $9.7 billion in wages and salaries each year to industry employees, according to 2017 figures by the Outdoor Industry Association.
In considering the potential economic impacts of the proposed measures, the Forest Service evaluated population demographics for counties likely to incur immediate impacts, as well as those counties’ economic contributions from tourism and recreation.
Impacts from closures and changes in trail designations will likely be limited to tourism and recreation, Forest Service reports indicate, as the plan is “unlikely to significantly alter overall economic contributions to local economies from industry sectors such as mining and forestry.”
To assess just how impactful the changes might be, the Forest Service reviewed responses from 2016 in which visitors identified their primary reason for visiting the forestlands.
More than 14 percent of visitors identified “driving for pleasure,” while another 7 percent stated they had participated in some sort of “motorized trail activity.” Another 3.2 percent identified use of an off-highway vehicle as their main activity at PSI.
But while Forest Service reports hint at the potential economic impacts of closing roads or changing levels of motorized vehicle use, they also indicate that in the long term, “closing areas to motorized use to minimize other resource concerns could maintain or enhance resource conditions and recreation experiences and support continued economic contributions from recreation.”
With the public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement having concluded Nov. 4, the Forest Service will now consider the public’s concerns while drafting a final version of the EIS.
Here are the five alternatives currently proposed by the NFS that may be altered over the course of drafting the final EIS:
• Alternative A, the no-action alternative, would maintain PSI’s 2,510.81 miles of current routes.
• Alternative B would “emphasize decommissioning the contested routes” identified in the 2015 settlement agreement, resulting in a more-than 42 percent reduction in roads and a .74 percent reduction in trails. Overall, Alternative B nets a 33.74 percent reduction in routes.
• Alternative C is the proposed course of action chosen by the Forest Service and emphasizes a safe and environmentally sound transportation system that allows for existing forest uses like access to private parcels and facilities, as well as continued use by search and rescue, emergency services, utilities and firefighters. Alternative C nets a 10.61 percent reduction in roads and a 21.87 percent increase in trails for an overall route reduction of 4.07 percent.
• Alternative D nets the lowest total reduction of routes of any proposal, with a 28.09 percent reduction in roads and a nearly 95 percent increase in trails. This alternative is meant to emphasize “diverse, high-quality and interconnected public motor vehicle use and recreation.”
• Alternative E “emphasizes natural resource protection, habitat quality and quiet recreation, while providing limited motor vehicle access to the forest. This alternative nets the largest reduction in roads of any of the alternatives (51.62 percent) as well the largest reduction in trails (nearly 45 percent). This alternative would result in a more than 50 percent reduction in total routes.
A final draft record of decision is expected by Spring 2020.