Conservation and recreation groups filed a complaint today in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado challenging the legality of hundreds of miles of motorized vehicle routes in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests.
The Forest Service is required to thoroughly review new motorized vehicle routes to determine their impact before they are approved. The 500 miles of disputed routes appeared on the Forest Service's Motor Vehicle Use Map even though they were never reviewed. The lawsuit seeks to have the routes stricken from the map until they undergo an environmental review.
"Once they're on the map, it's sort of official permission from the Forest Service to use them," said Melanie Kay, an attorney for Earthjustice. "The problem with opening these routes before analyzing them is we really don't know what impact these routes are going to have on native fish and wildlife and the land."
The Forest Service has failed to show that these routes have ever been officially analyzed for their environmental impact, including how they will affect hiking, biking, other types of recreation and their affect on endangered species. The Forest Service also failed to make its decision to add these routes available for public comment as required by the law.
“I’m really upset because this forest means so much to me and my family,” said Alan Heald, an avid hiker and snow shoer who has dealt with years of ORV trespass problems around his family’s mining claim. “Everyone knows that this forest’s management and enforcement of ORVs has been very lenient for decades. But now, instead of utilizing the new rules to rein it in, they are attempting to officially lock in the decades of illegal use without a public and environmental process.”
The Pike and San Isabel National Forests are a Colorado treasure and one of the top 10 most visited forests in the country. Their rocky pinnacles, rolling ponderosa pine forests and high peaks are recreational havens for mountain bikers, hikers and climbers. Nineteen of Colorado’s 54 mountains over 14 thousand feet in elevation are here, including the state's highest, Mount Elbert, at 14,433 feet. The forests’ abundant wildlife is a draw for sportsman and tourists. Their rugged canyons and remote plateaus are also home to a number of rare species including the threatened Mexico Spotted Owl, Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.
“There are rules to follow here, and the Forest Service, at the expense of me and my neighbors and many others, is just ignoring them,” said Mary Torres, who’s home, adjacent to the Pike National Forest, is in an area where illegal activity is rampant.
Michael Wallace, a former timber contractor on the Pike and San Isabel and nearby neighbor of Mary’s for 25 years, added, “I have witnessed and endured years of illegal off-road vehicle use of these old timber tracks and now completely avoid the trail system because it’s so dangerous and unregulated. For the Forest Service to simply reward this history of abuse by adding the routes to the system goes against everything that a democracy stands for…which is to have a fair and public process."
“The last thing this forest needs is more roads through prime wildlife habitat,” says Bill Sustrich, a Life and Benefactor member of the National Rifle Association who has hunted in the area for more than 40 years. “In some places on this forest, the motorized routes look like a plate of spaghetti. Adding 500 miles of existing tracks without allowing public comment or ever considering the impacts is simply wrong."
The Pike and San Isabel National Forests are overflowing with roads and motorized trails. The forest are $16 million behind in maintaining its thousands of miles of official roads. Grandfathering in nearly 800 additional tracks will only exacerbate the problem and is irresponsible management.
Alison Dunlap, former Olympian and World Champion mountain bike racer and business owner in Colorado Springs, laments that this move, if not reversed, will spread road and trail maintenance dollars even more thinly. “The Forest Service needs to put its limited funds toward maintaining the roads and trails that are needed, and not drain it away on redundant roads to nowhere,” she emphasizes. “What the Forest Service did will not help ensure safe and reliable access to the places where I conduct business and where my family loves to bike, camp and hike.”
Groups filing the lawsuit include the Quiet Use Coalition, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Center for Native Ecosystems, Wildlands CPR and The Wilderness Society and are represented by Earthjustice.