Fight brews over proposed motorized access to Franc’s Peakby Kelsey Dayton
— March 18, 2014
The Shoshone National Forest is known for its incredible backcountry areas and its seemingly unending opportunities for recreation: climbing, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, mountain biking and off-road vehicle riding.
The problem is the opportunities aren’t always endless, and it can be hard to share certain areas while still protecting the values that make the forest home to a variety of wildlife.
After years of planning the Forest Service released in January a final draft record of decision that will guide management on the forest for the next 15 to 20 years. The draft decision featured a brand new alternative, or plan, for forest management that would allow motorized trails in previously non-motorized areas in the Franc’s Peak and Wood River areas of the forest. That alternative, which hadn’t been included in the planning process before, has some recreationists celebrating while others are angry.
Forest spokeswoman Kristie Salzmann said it was one of the most discussed topics at the series of public meetings the forest service held in Dubois, Lander, Thermopolis and Cody this month. She explained the change came after reviewing comments with off-highway vehicle clubs.
The plan does not mean motorized use will be allowed in those areas, Salzmann said. It means managers can consider motorized trails during the travel management planning process. In other parts of the forest plan, managers removed from consideration some areas originally proposed for off-road vehicle recreation because they fell in the primary conservation area for grizzly bears.
Motorized recreation is a growing sport, and setting up a good management system is important so people don’t illegally ride wherever they want, Salzmann said. Motorized trail sizes vary, but vehicles have to be 50-inches wide or smaller to ride them, she said.
The problem is that the areas in the plan proposed for motorized use have the highest potential for wilderness designation on the forest, said Charles Drimal, Absaroka-Beartooth Front contractor with Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The Franc’s Peak and Wood River area has a rich heritage of non-motorized activities like horse packing, hiking and hunting. It is home to big horn sheep and migrating elk. Grizzlies frequent the area to feast on its high concentration of army cutworm moths, which are an important food source for bears. It also is one of the rare places in Wyoming where there are high elevation antelope and sage grouse populations.
Conservation groups have advocated for wilderness designation for the areas to prevent things like this happening, Drimal said. Land managers need to view the forest as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and think about how managing creates ecosystem-wide impacts, especially when it comes to wildlife. If motorized use is allowed in the areas it will be much harder for it to ever be considered for wilderness.
One of the biggest issues for opponents of motorized use in the area is the timing. “It’s such a fast and strange turn of events, we were just unprepared for it,” said Dave Burke, a former Park County commissioner who worked with the Forest Service on the plan while serving in his elected position.
Burke understands motorized recreation is growing and he’s fine with people riding ATVs and dirt bikes in certain areas, but he says the Franc’s Peak and Wood River areas on the Shoshone Forest aren’t appropriate due to their wildlife values.
Burke was one of several people who met with Gov. Matt Mead’s natural resources policy advisors, Jerimiah Rieman and Jessica Crowder, hoping to convince the governor to file an objection to the plan. The governor is still reviewing the plan and talking with citizens, spokesman Renny McKay said. Gov. Mead has not yet publicly stated his position on the draft record of decision.
In comments submitted in November, 2012, Mead did acknowledge that motorized use is a growing activity on the Shoshone National Forest and that while the draft plan increased motorized trails, it wasn’t enough to provide a quality trail system. Mead asked the Forest Service to work with the Wyoming State Trails Program to find places for additional connector trails to create loops and where illegal and duplicative trails could be eliminated.
Adding trails to this area makes sense, said Dana Sanders, president of the Northwest Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance. There are old motorized trails in the area that haven’t been used for decades that he’d like to see opened to create looped trails. Off-highway vehicle recreation is one of the fastest-growing forms of recreation in the West and brings the state millions of dollars in revenue, Sanders said.
The Forest Service listened to the group and even opened up more area than they requested, Sanders said. The plan alternative could result in 10 new miles of trail, and it could take years before completed, according to Sanders. People hear that thousands of acres could be considered for motorized use and they panic, he said. Riding is restricted to trails, which are narrow and can only be built on certain terrain.
Of the almost 2.5 million acres of the Shoshone, 1.9 million acres are designated non-motorized, or wilderness, Sanders said. “It’s amazing that the very small percentage we can even think about building a trail on, people go nuts over,” he said. “We can’t even use this small piece without a fight.”
The forest is meant to be multi-use and areas can, and should be, shared, he said. Especially since people who ride ATVs outnumber backcountry horsemen, Sanders said. Many people who choose to use ORVs to recreate are older and can’t hike because of hip or ankle issues. Many members of the organization are older than 50, or are families. Sanders’ wife and kids ride.
“It’s just a different tool to explore God’s country,” he said. “We just want to share of it. We aren’t asking for all of it, just a small piece.”
The problem is the area isn’t conducive to sharing with fast and loud machines, said Barry Reiswig, a backcountry horseman who frequents the areas. “We go back into that country to get away from that stuff,” he said.
In Reiswig’s view, the Forest Service is taking a myopic view of the forest. While much of the Shoshone is non-motorized, right outside the forest service boundary there are millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management land mostly open to ORVs and thousands of acres of other terrain in areas like the Big Horn National Forest, the Black Hills and Medicine Bow national forests.
“This is kind of our last stronghold and we are not just walking from this,” Reiswig said. He plans to file an objection, but says that is harder than if he’d known motorized use in the area was a possibility and he’d been able to advocate against it throughout the planning process. He said the change feels like a “back-room deal.”
People are allowed to file an objection if they submitted a comment during the public commenting period and the plan was not changed to match what they lobbied for. Anyone can comment on changes in the proposed final decision that are different than what was presented in the planning process.
The objection period ends March 26. The Forest Service’s review office will then have 90 days to review and respond to objections. A final record of decision is expected to be in July. For more information visit this website.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at [email protected] Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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