A federal lawsuit, filed in January 2011 and settled in November 2015, has forced changes in road use in each of six ranger districts of Pueblo-based Pike-San Isabel National Forest.
Over 500 road miles are now or will be seasonally closed in the first months of the year; 33 percent, or about 165 miles, are in the Fairplay-based South Park Ranger District.
What it means to forest visitors is that, beginning in January in Park County, and December in neighboring counties, popular routes that traverse big game winter range will be closed for up to five and a half months each year.
A small portion of the 500 road miles will be permanently closed because the areas are considered semi-primitive, non-motorized, recreation areas; or the roads are in an area where endangered species live; or they are social, unauthorized, non-system roads created by forest visitors.
The suit stems from allegations, brought on by plaintiffs – The Wilderness Society, Quiet Use Coalition, Wildearth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness – that Pike-San Isabel was not following National Environmental Policy Act regarding allowing public comments before additional roads were added to the Motor Vehicle Use Map, said Josh Voorhis, district ranger in South Park Ranger District.
Per www.epa.gov, NEPA “requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions” and “to provide meaningful opportunities for public participation,” including publishing the document for public review and accepting public comments.
The plaintiffs allege that Pike-San Isabel did neither before new roads were added to MVUMs of each district.
It was also alleged that the established 1984 Forest Plan has not been followed. “The Plan allocates land to different management prescriptions,” said Voorhis, “for back country roads, wilderness and timber, to name a few. It also allocates certain areas as “important, critical wildlife habitat.”
A major part of the settlement and the part that affects the visiting public the most, is formulation of a travel management plan to determine if and when motorized traffic will be allowed through big game winter range habitat.
This year, and for the next five years, the routes listed at the end of this article will be closed in the winter months while the plan is formulated.
The November 2015 settlement required each district to consult with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to discuss which roads should be seasonally closed.
Some roads have been closed historically; those will have locked gates. New closures will not be gated, but will have signs posted like the one pictured with this article.
“There are no funds available to buy gates,” Voorhis said. Instead, he expects that “people will read the signs and comply.” His hope is that forest visitors will realize the importance of the order. He added that “a violation notice can be issued for failure to abide by the special order.” The maximum fine is $5,000 and/or six months in jail.
Effects on wildlife
Two groups that support off-highway vehicle use on forest roads, Trails Preservation Alliance and Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, wrote a letter to PSI Forest Supervisor Erin Connelly in September 2016, saying in part, “The premise that ‘large animals, especially deer and elk, are sensitive to traffic and activity along roads’ is not supported by published scientific research.”
Their full letter is found online at http://www.coloradotpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/20160907-PikeSanIsabelTM.pdf.
United States Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Kristen Meyer disagrees.
She cited extensive research showing that deer and elk are especially sensitive to vehicular traffic intrusions during mating and birthing seasons, which encompasses the closure months.
The Bureau of Land Management, Colorado office, posts on its website that winter is the most stressful time of year for wildlife.
Food sources are limited, yet the animals need extra nourishment because of the cold. Their instinctual behavior to run from loud noises and from people consumes needed calories.
In Park County, roads in the Morrison-based South Platte district, including Forest Service Roads 126, 809, 810 and their spurs near the top of Kenosha Pass, and FSRs 101 and 105 in the Slaughterhouse Gulch area, will be closed Jan. 1 - May 15.
In South Park, seasonal closures on the west side of the district include roads northeast of Jefferson Lake Recreation Area near the Kenosha Pass summit, which are closed Jan. 15 - May 15.
Closed Jan. 1 - June 15, are Beaver Creek, Crooked Creek, all forest roads and trails in the Horseshoe/Fourmile area including Breakneck and Browns passes and all forest roads east of Buffalo Peaks Wilderness.
On the east side, FSRs 140, 844 and 845 southeast of Jefferson close Jan. 1 - June 15, as do FSRs 204 and 212 near Spruce Grove campground and FSRs 142 (and spurs) and 143 north of Tarryall Reservoir.
FSR 237 in the Packer Gulch area closes March 1 - June 15, and, in the southern end of the county, roads south of Dicks Creek and north of Black Mountain are closed Jan. 1 - June 1.
In the Colorado Springs-based Pikes Peak district, FSR 376-A in Teller County, is closed Dec. 1 - March 31.
The San Isabel National Forest closed several roads in the Salida, Leadville and Canon City-based San Carlos districts in December. They will open in March, April or May, depending on the road.
Roads will be closed only to motorized traffic. Traveling on foot, horseback and non-motorized bicycle is allowed.
Traveling via an over-snow vehicle, defined by Pike-San Isabel as “a motor vehicle that is designed for use over snow and runs on a track or tracks and/or a ski or skis, while in use over snow,” is also allowed.