By Kathe Hayes
San Juan Mountains Association
The U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905 when President Teddy Roosevelt transferred Americas Forest Reserves to the Department of Agriculture with the mission to protect the reserves against fire, to assist the people in their use and to see that they are properly used.
The agencys mission continues today, calling for managing national forests for multiple uses and benefits and for the sustained yield of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, wood and recreation.
Although the mission remains the same, one thing that has changed greatly over the last century is the intensity and amount of recreational use on national forest lands. One of the responses to this new pressure on natural resources has been the Forest Services Travel Management Rule, a regulation developed by the Bush administration in 2005 that now is being implemented across the country through the National Environmental Policy Act. The rule calls for the establishment of a system of motorized routes while ending the practice of cross country motorized travel.
The west side of the San Juan National Forest, once known as the Montezuma National Forest, historically has been used for many purposes. Over the years, temporary travel routes were created for access to timber sales, well pads, fences and firefighting operations. Many of these routes never were constructed to provide access as Forest Service system roads and were meant to be temporary.
Because roads and trails alter the lands natural ability to capture, store and transport water, the Forest Service roads are carefully designed, constructed and maintained to protect the integrity of the roadbed and guard against erosion into waterways and drainages.
In addition, because earlier policies in the Dolores Ranger District allowed driving off system roads and because much of the area consists of flat to rolling terrain, off-road motorized use expanded exponentially over the years. The result of this unmanaged situation has been the creation of a spider web of hundreds of miles of motorized routes leading in every direction. They cut through meadows, streams and forests, often duplicating access to the same areas over and over. Driving off maintained roads has left behind a quagmire of ruts, mud holes and bogs that erode soil and degrade water quality.
One of the joys of visiting the national forest is the crystal clear water of its lakes, rivers and streams and the rolling vistas of its hills, mountains and valleys. Intact and functioning natural resources not only offer beautiful scenery but also are vital for the health of the land and all creatures including us.
Driving off system roads negatively impacts the natural resources of the national forest. Healthy forest floors are covered with protective vegetation, which holds soil in place. Motorized travel on unmaintained routes creates bare ground that erodes, silting up waterways, degrading fish habitat and lowering water quality.
Streamside vegetation is especially delicate. Tire tracks through wet meadows or streams are almost impossible to rehabilitate. Perhaps the worst part is that these routes continue to erode and impact water quality even when no one is driving on them.
Wild animals, such as deer and elk, need large natural areas to thrive, and national forests allow herds to distance themselves from noise and disturbance to forage, breed and raise their young. Wildlife biologists have observed that fewer elk are found in areas bisected by several motorized routes. This is especially true during hunting season because during this time, motorized routes that may receive little or no traffic at other times of year often are used heavily on a daily basis.
Biologists have found that herds will leave national forest lands in these areas during hunting season to escape the motorized pressure buzzing around them from all sides. In many areas of the Dolores District, off-road motorized routes are less than a half-mile apart, chopping the landscape into smaller and smaller spaces.
Forests also provide food, cover and housing for a variety of birds, small mammals and large predators, such as bears and mountain lions. All types of wildlife benefit when they have large protected areas of natural space between roads and trails space where they can be wild.
To protect all these important values, the San Juan National Forest is in the process of identifying an open road system to be maintained for motorized access, while eliminating driving on some off-road routes to protect water and wildlife resources and all of the other natural resources residents and tourists enjoy. An important part of this effort is public participation. To learn more about motorized travel planning on public lands in southwestern Colorado, visit www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan or contact the San Juan Public Lands Center at 247-4874.
Kathe Hayes is volunteer program director with the San Juan Mountains Association.