A typical barricade; this one erected on a road that branches off Highway 203 near the junction of Hwy. 395 (Photo: Geisel)
The recent implementation of the Inyo National Forest’s Travel Management Decision (TMD), which was signed off on in 2009 by then INF Supervisor Jim Upchurch, has drawn criticism from several forest road users who object to the massive amount of road closures recently put into effect.
Crews, including members of Bishop-based Friends of the Inyo, which was subcontracted to help facilitate the work, began implementing the TMD in July, though most of the closures only recently began to get noticed by trail users, as one by one hundreds of miles of trails suddenly turned up blocked off and barricaded, perhaps as many as 2,000 or more by some estimates.
Friends of the Inyo, according to its Summer newsletter, performed work in the Mono Basin, Glass Mountains, Glass Creek/Deadman Creek and Little Hot Creek areas.
As District Ranger Jon Regelbrugge recalled, the TMD, a directive handed down from Washington, D.C., was subject to “an extensive public process leading up to it,” and based on input from various stakeholders – provided information about existing routes at the time. Regelbrugge said the U.S. Forest Service spent considerable time weighing recreational benefits against maintenance costs. Of approximately 1,800 miles of previously undetermined routes, Regelbrugge said that by early 2010 about 1,000 miles were added back to the National Forest Transportation System (NFTS). This means that some 800-900 miles of trails were not part of the designated system, and targeted for closure.
The Trail Management Decision emerged from the Clinton Roadless Initiative put forth by the former president on Oct. 13, 1999. Part of his statement read: “Specifically, I direct the Forest Service to develop, and propose for public comment, regulations to provide appropriate long-term protection for most or all of these currently inventoried ‘roadless’ areas, and to determine whether such protection is warranted for any smaller ‘roadless’ areas not yet inventoried.”
Off-highway vehicle user Bill Sauser said that, in essence, this meant that locally many roads that had been in existence for more than 50 years suddenly became illegal. “The government said they don’t really exist,” Sauser observed. “We tried to open some of those routes, but the bulk of them were now off limits.”
Asked what he thought about the recent grousing over trail closures, Sauser indicated he thinks it’s a problem of both perception and methodology. “The motorized community isn’t happy we’re losing trails, but we knew this was going to happen,” he said, adding that he was part of a joint collaborative effort with user groups and environmentalists that went over planned closures with the U.S.F.S. to see what could be left open. Sauser related he has also gone out with the Forest Service and other users and surveyed areas of concern.
“There’s also a perception (of bullying by anti-OHV groups) that grinds users the wrong way,” he suggested, given the Forest Service used Friends of the Inyo to close trails. The perception, he pointed out, isn’t being helped by the fact that FOI was essentially paid to close trails with grant funding from the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Trust Fund. Some critics have likened that to a scam, saying it amounts to OHV users essentially closing their own trails and paying FOI to do it.
Perception, however, isn’t the only concern Sauser has; he’s also very worried about safety, especially during the upcoming winter OHV season. “If I’m riding through snow early on, and I come up on some big boulders and hit one that wasn’t there before that’s not marked, my question is, assuming I survive, who do I sue first?”
Sauser said it’s not unreasonable to think there could be considerable snowmobile damage and potential rider injury in the offing, due to the types of closure devices used, including boulders and wooden posts and crossbeams placed across former access points. “Not enough thought went into HOW they’re being closed,” he thinks. Sauser also questioned how the closures would affect campsites located at the end of some roads, and whether that dooms the campsite by extension.
“The Forest Service should have recalled the original groups to go over the differences before the plan was acted on,” he said. “We agreed that we’d support that map as it existed, but now we could be closing roads that weren’t part of that original process. It’s a question of collaboration: who’s setting the priorities, what are they, how are they being implemented?”
A recreational map issued of the north half of the motorized trails and roads was issued in 2010, which some veteran OHV users opine is basically useless. “No one who doesn’t know the forest like the back of their hand is going to be able to pick up one of those maps and make heads or tails out of it,” a source told The Sheet.
Sauser’s chief concern about the whole issue is actually a more long-term one. “I love the forest, and I want it protected, but if we constrict the trail system, instead of expanding it, we’re going to actually end up creating a highway system with even more traffic flow problems,” he concluded.
Mono County Supervisor Vikki Bauer, whose District 3 includes the INF’s north section of INF and June Lake, is a trail user as well, but prefers to look at the TMD in a more “big picture” context. During last month’s June Lake Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting, Bauer heard feedback from her constituents about the problem.
“I couldn’t get the CAC and other residents interested until the roads closed,” Bauer quipped. Herself a hunter, Bauer was also recently surprised when she and her husband went out on an excursion only to find their favorite trail closed.
The original impression, she explained, was that existing U.S.F.S. roads weren’t going to be closed, but that new roads weren’t going to be added. More detail revealed that the Forest Service wouldn’t be closing SYSTEM roads, which aren’t necessarily the same as regular roads, many of which fell into the category of technically illegal.
As a result, about 25% of the roads residents are used to using are being closed, Bauer indicated. Some of the roads could be re-evaluated in terms of recreational benefits and possibly reopened to some extent within about 12 to 18 months.
“The whole process makes sense; if we can end up with a better road system that’s well marked, that’s going to be a big benefit to [Mono County],” Bauer stated. “I don’t want to see the Inyo Forest all carved up and torn up like it has been. Change is hard, people don’t always like it, but this is the only way to prevent that [kind of outcome].”
She’s also pragmatic when it comes to conspiracy theories that the TMD is in part a cost- and manpower savings ploy, and the real objective is to simply not re-open the trails. “I’m afraid the pieces that are closed are closed for good,” she acknowledged. “That said, there’s an emotional reaction to closing a road you’re used to traveling on, but that has to be offset by looking at the bigger picture, and understanding what happened and why each road was closed. And the two or three we all think should be left open we’re gonna fight for!”
Speaking of battles, Friends of the Inyo Executive Director Stacy Corless said she understands why some in the OHV community are upset to see changes on the ground, but firmly dismissed any “black helicopter” conspiracy in terms of her organization’s role in travel management. She agreed that communication about implementation hasn’t been great, and told The Sheet her preference was to be more in front of the issue, but out of professional courtesy, she deferred to the Forest Service on public relations.
Corless also rejected any taking of liberties on FOI’s part. “As an organization, Friends of the Inyo (FOI) advocates for sustainable, responsible recreation on the Eastern Sierra’s public lands, and works to make that a reality through on-the-ground stewardship. Motorized travel management implementation on the Inyo National Forest is an example of that,” she said. “Our board and staff participated in the planning process, and as an agency partner, FOI is helping to get some of the necessary work done to implement the TMD. Our role is in restoration, or closing routes not added to the system.” She went on to say that FOI’s crew and volunteer work is performed according to very specific guidelines, with clear reporting procedures and under direct INF staff supervision.
“We’re not anti-OHV … I don’t know how many times I have to say that,” Corless stated. “I have FOI staff that would like us to get some dirt bikes to take out on trail work!” Corless added that she hopes OHV enthusiasts will work with the INF and its partners to make the best of the situation. “There are opportunities to develop single-track motocross trails, loop trails and lots more,” she said. “I think we can both protect our resources and also make for some great OHV recreational experiences.”
Regelbrugge estimates it will take roughly five years to revise the entire trails network.