On Friday, five recreation and conservation groups moved to protect wildlife, air and water quality and opportunities for quiet recreation in Colorado by filing their opening brief in a legal challenge to the U.S. Forest Service’s official okay of hundreds of miles of routes for motorized vehicle use on the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. The groups’ lawsuit seeks to drive the federal agency back to reconsider its 2009 route designations that failed to consider the potential harm to forest resources that could result from motor vehicle use on some routes. These “never-analyzed” routes grew out of decades of inadequate off-road vehicle management and enforcement on the forests and disproportionately impact the forests with little benefit.
“The Forest Service is rightly required to ‘look before they leap,’” said Melanie Kay of Earthjustice, attorney for the groups. “We’re not asking the Forest Service to ban motor vehicle use on the forests or to deny anyone reasonable access or recreational opportunities. Rather, we’re protecting the interests of forest visitors and the forest itself by ensuring that the agency makes well-informed decisions and does so in accordance with laws and regulations that have been on the books for decades.”
The groups maintain that the Forest Service side-stepped several federal laws and Forest Service regulations by publishing a Motor Vehicle Use Map designating as available for motorized vehicles more than 500 miles of never-before-authorized roads and trails. The Forest Service has been unable to show any evidence that these routes have ever been officially analyzed for the impacts of vehicle use, including how hiking, biking and other types of recreation, water and air quality and the future of endangered species would be affected. The fatally-flawed process violated the National Environmental Protection Act, National Forest Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Forest Service’s own regulations.
The Pike and San Isabel National Forests are Colorado treasures and together are in the top 10 most visited forests in the country. The rocky pinnacles, rolling ponderosa pine forests and high peaks are recreational havens for mountain bikers, hikers and climbers. Nineteen of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners are here, including the state's highest, Mount Elbert, at 14,433 feet. The Forests’ abundant wildlife is a draw for sportsman and tourists. The 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.
Unfortunately, the Pike and San Isabel National Forests are overflowing with roads and motorized trails. The National Forests are $16 million behind in maintaining the thousands of miles of official roads. The inclusion of another nearly 800 additional tracks will only exacerbate the problem and is irresponsible management. Approximately 100 of the added routes cross semi-primitive, non-motorized areas or areas managed as winter range for big game; approximately 130 routes are in critical habitat for federally listed endangered species.
“At the end of the day, this is about getting the forest back on track,” said Kay. “After years of lenient enforcement of motorized vehicle use, it’s time for the Forest Service to take a stand. Our public lands deserve better than a ‘throw open the doors’ approach to management.”
The public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Quiet Use Coalition, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Center for Native Ecosystems, Wildlands CPR and The Wilderness Society in this matter in federal district court.