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Forest Service agrees to begin winter travel planning on Rio Grande

Conservationists reach partial settlement with federal agency
James Gallegos of Pagosa Springs rides his snowmobile on Wolf Creek Pass. With the overall number of backcountry users on the rise, the Rio Grande National Forest is now starting the process of managing winter travel following a settlement with conservationists. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Jan 22, 2023
Winter travel changes likely in Rio Grande National Forest

The parties in a lawsuit over the lack of winter recreation management planning in the Rio Grande National Forest have reached a partial settlement, under which the Forest Service has agreed to initiate the preliminary planning steps by the end of April 2024.

The agreement, which has been signed by both parties but has yet to be accepted by Colorado District Court Judge Regina Rodriguez, settles the plaintiff’s second claim and the third count of their first claim, putting the disagreement over winter recreation planning to bed.

Plaintiffs San Luis Valley Ecosystems Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, The Wilderness Society, WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild first filed a lawsuit in November 2021 to contest the Rio Grande’s forest management plan that was adopted in 2020.

They alleged that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Protection Act by failing to adequately consider protections for the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly and the Canada lynx; they also argued that the agency violated the 2012 Planning Rule that stems from the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which requires forest managers to designate certain areas for motor vehicle use, such as snow mobiles, and close all other zones.

It is the latter of these claims that has been settled.

“I'm really pleased that the Forest Service has worked to settle our winter recreation claims and that they'll begin winter travel planning on the Rio Grande,” said Public Lands Program Manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance John Rader.

Under the agreement, the forest managers must initiate a scoping period for a winter travel plan by April 30, 2024, and will aspire to have a final environmental impact statement and draft plan within two years. As a part of that process, the USFS will complete a recreation opportunity spectrum, which takes into account the uses and capacity of the forest for various types of travel.

Rio Grande National Forest spokesman Gregg Goodland has previously stressed that the forest has always intended to complete winter travel planning upon finishing the forest management plan.

Rader has maintained that the lack of a timeline or action toward this goal was inadequate in complying with the law, which necessitated a lawsuit.

“We acknowledge that it's a long process, we want to begin that process now,” Rader said. “The Forest Service has to do the review of environmental impacts, they have to do a lot of stakeholder outreach. We know that's going to take time.”

Conservationists have called for a winter travel plan because they say the number of conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users is likely to rise and there is neither adequate data nor protections in place to fully address the issue.

Davey Pitcher, CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area, has previously said that infringement of the ski area boundary has been a problem in recent years, and he hopes that winter travel planning can help address the issue.

Because several popular recreation zones, such as Red Mountain and Wolf Creek passes, fall on the boundary of national forests, Rader and his cohort have advocated that winter recreation planning take place on a regional level in order to create consistent regulations throughout those zones. The settlement, however, only pertains to the Rio Grande National Forest.

Donna Nemeth, a spokeswoman for the USFS Region 2, said that Timory Peel, acting strategic planning director at Region 2, is working to assemble a team to accomplish parts of this task, but could not offer more specific details.

The petitioners’ claims that the USFS violated the National Environmental Protection Act are pending. Rader declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

“We know that most outdoor recreationists – motorized or human powered – respect other users and care about the places we play outside,” Rader said. “This settlement means that we can get together in a public forum and hash out these access issues in a transparent way so that everyone can understand the trade-offs and protect the whole range of public resources – motorized use, quiet recreation, wildlife habitat and ecosystem resources –everything the forest has to offer.”


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