A travel management plan recently approved by the San Juan National Forest for the Dolores Valley now faces a second lawsuit – this time from environmentalists and Dunton Hot Springs.
The Rico-West Dolores Roads and Trails Project defines use of trails on a 244,000-acre section of national forest stretching from the West Fork River to Lizard Head Pass.
The decision closed some trails to single-track motorcycle use, including at popular Bear Creek, and put new seasonal restrictions on motorized users to protect deer and elk habitat and the fall hunting experience.
But the new rules that took effect Oct. 1 have been controversial, and whether they will stand will be decided in court.
In September, Durango-based San Juan Trail Riders, along with national groups Trails Preservation Alliance and Access Preservation Association, sued the Dolores Ranger District, claiming that the closing of 30 miles of trails to motorcycles and seasonal restrictions for motorized users on other trails are not legal.
Then this month, Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance, Dunton Hot Springs Inc. and WildEarth Guardians presented their legal case against a part of the forest plan.
In a lawsuit, they claim the seasonal closures for motorized use on trails do not adequately protect deer, elk and water quality, as required under forest policy.
According to the new seasonal restrictions, motorcycle use on single-track trails is allowed from June 1 to Oct. 31.
But, environmentalists argue that motorized use dates should be July 1 to Sept. 8 to protect spring elk calving, the fall mating rut and the hunter experience.
In a news release, environmental groups say the stricter motorized use dates were originally proposed by the forest, then expanded in the final decision.
“The decision to allow motorized single-track trail use from June 1 to Oct. 31 is a radical departure from all previous Forest Service proposals that is not justified by the Environmental Impact Statement,” said Robert Marion, a Mancos hunter, angler and hiker who is a member of several of the plaintiff organizations. “These motorcycle use dates do not adequately protect wildlife and wildlife habitat, and they seriously disturb the hunting experience for thousands of hunters during the fall big-game hunting seasons.”
Steve Johnson, an attorney for Dunton Hot Springs, says scientific studies establish that motorized travel can displace elk over a half a mile, “so a 50-mile dirt-bike loop effectively sterilizes over 100 square miles of elk habitat.”
He said Dunton wants to defend quiet-use opportunities for hikers and horseback riders “who have been displaced by dirt-bikers and their trail damage over the past few decades.”
While the environmental groups challenge the plan’s seasonal restrictions as inadequate in a legal complaint, they also filed a motion to defend the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to eliminate cross-country motorized use in the Rico-West Dolores project area.
The motion is against a lawsuit filed by off-road motorcycle groups that are seeking to overturn the plan’s ban on motorcycle use on some trails and the timing of restrictions.
“The Forest Service made the right call for the health of wildlife like elk by ending uncontrolled motorized use across the entire Rico-West Dolores landscape,” said John Mellgren with the Western Environmental Law Center. “But allowing motorized use on trails during critical times of year for elk adds an unnecessary stressor on this iconic, but imperiled, elk herd.”
The Rico-West Dolores travel management plan has been controversial since first introduced in 2009 and often pitted quiet users and hunters against motorized users in public meetings, letters to the editor, plan comments and on social media.
In 2010, public objections that it did not have enough environmental analysis forced forest officials to start over. Then, a lawsuit by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Colorado Chapter challenged the legality of 14 existing motorized trails, claiming their impacts were not properly analyzed. But in 2015, a U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit and upheld the decision to allow motorized use on the trails. The opinion was written by Appeals Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who was later confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Montezuma County commissioners and motorized groups fought hard to keep Bear Creek and Burnett Creek trails open to motorized uses, but it did not happen. Single-track motorcyclists enjoy accessing Rico from the Calico Trail via Burnett Creek, proponents said. But Rico officials said they wanted it closed to motorized vehicles to reduce noise and traffic, and forest officials agreed.