The Inyo National Forest’s 2009 Motorized Travel Management Decision, part of a national effort begun in 2003, is still drawing its share of critics, some of whom suggest that the agency went too far in closing some 700 miles of trails. On Tuesday evening at the USFS Welcome Center in Mammoth, the U.S. Forest Service brought out many of its top staff for a public update on the progress being made in implementing the decision.
On hand were INF Supervisor Ed Armenta, Mammoth District Ranger Jon Regelbrugge, Mammoth and Mono Lake Recreation Officer Jon Kazmierski, new Mammoth Deputy District Ranger Sarah Tomsky, White Mountain District Ranger Diana Pietrasanta and Trails Program Coordinator Marty Hornick, who’s been overseeing the decision for the past several years. Part of the issue with some off-highway vehicle users is how the trails for closure were chosen.
Hornick explained during his presentation that the decision was a major undertaking, trying to find and map any existing roads out there, not just what was on paper but also physically. Many of the 2,300 miles of roads and trails in the INF date back to mining and tree harvesting uses by the public more than 100 years ago and decades before the inception of the Forest Service early in the last century. Of the 1,700 miles left over from those days, more than 1,000 were added back for inclusion in the system.
As with many government programs, a fixed set of national criteria was established to come up with a formula for what trails were and weren’t legal or otherwise redundant, and therefore suitable for closing and rehabilitation. “A lot of effort went into the decision, but there are still tweaks needed to be made,” Armenta commented.
“We know we didn’t get it all perfect,” Hornick acknowledged, citing mapping errors and other imperfections in field information, such as ferreting out what appeared to be different trails that actually emanated from a single point of origin. “We’re still taking notes from the public, and if we screwed up, we can fix it really quickly.” He also pointed out that some routes, even if they’ve been closed, could be added back in if there’s a need.
Paul MacFarland, who was a member of the civilian advisory team during its formative stages, recalled that roads near Hot Creek were added back in because of public comment, which he said shows public input could make a difference.
What Hornick and the rest of the INF team are still dealing with are riders who aren’t happy with some of the closures. While disguising former trails is the preferred method of mitigation and rehabilitation, that hasn’t prevented erosion and encroachment by users. Then there is vandalism, particularly regarding the hacking up of wooden t-bar closures, which Hornick said might feel good, but ultimately costs taxpayers more money, and fundamentally doesn’t change anything. “It’s still illegal,” he pointed out.
Cycle rider Sean Flavin said he appreciates the effort put into the decision, but wonders if the Forest Service wasn’t “spending millions of dollars to solve a problem that’s not a problem.” Mono County District 3 Supervisor Vikki Bauer observed that in the June Lake area of her district, “Even proper trail closures are getting lots of erosion [from trail cutters].”
Not always the best when it comes to effective communication with the public, INF staff finally illustrated some of the myriad problems they confronted when conducting an inventory of the routes. First, some of them overlap with county, private and Bureau of Land Management owned properties. Others go through wilderness land set aside by recent federal legislation. And Pietrasanta said others went through cultural or archeologically important areas, which aren’t necessarily apparent to the average person.
Regelbrugge said a winter-summer staging area in Shady Rest, which Councilmember Matthew Lehman noted is “a popular thing people want to see,” is still in the planning stages, but is being delayed somewhat by ORMAT’s geothermal enhancements to the Casa Diablo power plant. He added completion of the staging area is still expected by 2013.
And, yes, “Green Sticker” registration money is being used in the decision, but not to fund closures. According to the Forest Service, a certain amount set aside for “restoration” purposes is being utilized for planning purposes directly related to rehabbing certain routes where appropriate.
One aspect of the decision the Forest Service said it plans to improve involves wayfinding and signage, marking routes and loops for users such as single-track motorbike riders. “We don’t have enough single-track routes here,” motorbike enthusiast Fred Pierrel commented. “The adults are more responsible, but kids just cut trails. There’s poaching left and right; it’s a mess, anarchy. Protect special areas, yes, but give us enough trails.”
Hornick mentioned that a new grant is specifically earmarked to create an improved single-track network. “There are some policy and resource issues, but those are the types of things we want to hear,” Hornick responded. Armenta added that there would be upcoming opportunities to look at changing some lower-level roads to motorized trail or single-track use.
Additional public relations and media efforts are also being considered. Kazmierski pointed out, however, that while it’s important to get everyone on the same page, speaking “the same language,” often those are the least funded. The state, he said, prioritizes restoration and other needs over awareness. Armenta pledged to continue work on better signage to designate open trails.
Meanwhile, more public involvement was stressed, which the Forest Service hopes will clear up lingering perception problems. “It’s not like there are no opportunities out there,” Regelbrugge said. “The tone is that everything’s closed, whereas reality is that the vast majority [nearly 70% of the original routes] are open.” He went on to add that the motorized community should consider more internal discussions to prioritize how many trails should be dedicated to various uses, which he indicated the Forest Service would find very helpful.
“People are disenfranchised, even though they don’t come to meetings,” Steve Searles suggested. “They’re ripping t-bar closures out of sheer protest.” MacFarland agreed, lamenting a lack of participation, but opining that, “There’s lots of sentiment out there of, ‘Why get involved? It’s not gonna mean anything.’”
“We’re working on closures that are the least visually impactful,” Hornick reiterated, “but I agree, I’m sure it’s a trigger for offending some people.”