Lawsuit accuses Forest Service of ducking its own rules on off-road vehicles use

Few things get Coloradans as riled up as access to our public lands. The debate tends to rage on numerous fronts, but by far the most contentious battles are fought over off-road vehicle access: where, when, how and when is enough enough?

Officials with the Pike-San Isabel National Forest in southern-central Colorado touched off a powder keg of controversy recently when they issued a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) that conservationists say includes more than 500 miles of illegal roads and tracks – or “rogue” trails – formed by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or motorcycles over the years.

The groups filed suit last week in U.S. District Court alleging the U.S. Forest Service failed to properly vet the roads for environmental impacts, including their potential effect on endangered species and other recreational activities such as hiking and biking.

Represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, the groups include the Quiet Use Coalition, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Center for Native Ecosystems, Wildlands CPR and The Wilderness Society. The groups also say the roads were added without any public input.

Critics claim that the more than 800 trails, roads and tracks will only add to a USFS maintenance and upgrade backlog on the existing network in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest, which is in the top 10 most popular national forests in the United States. The Forest Service is currently $16 million behind in just maintaining existing roads, the groups claim.

“I’m really upset because this forest means so much to me and my family,” Quiet Use Coalition President Alan Heald said in a release “Everyone knows that this forest’s management and enforcement of [off-road vehicles] has been lackadaisical 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.”

Heald is an avid hiker who says he has dealt with years of off-road vehicle trespass problems around his family’s mining claim in the Pike-San Isabel.

Off-road vehicle groups in other parts of the state have battled with lower-impact forest users over inclusion of new public lands in wilderness proposals in the White River National Forest, where the Hidden Gems proposal sparked heated debate in recent years.

A watered down version of that proposal was proposed by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, in the last session of Congress. Its fate remains uncertain in the current Republican-controlled House.

And for years now Colorado has been working through a laborious process to craft its own rules for managing federal public lands designated as “roadless” areas. The state is seeking certain exemptions for ski area expansion and extractive industries such as gas drilling and logging.