As forest managers continue to draft a new travel management plan on the Sawtooth National Forest, some are hoping a dispute between motorized and nonmotorized access advocates in Eastern Idaho doesn't come home to roost here.
Last month, the BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-highway vehicle advocacy group, sent letters to people who commented in favor of a "Traditional Access & Recreation Emphasis Alternative" that was submitted to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest as part of a new travel management planning process.
The alternative was drafted by the Southeast Idaho Recreation Alliance, a 136-member organization that supports "sustainable, responsible and high-quality" outdoor recreation.
Forest managers are afraid the letters might deter people from participating in the public comment process, which is a cornerstone of public land management under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"We know that many of the groups who worked on this proposal have no interest in promoting harmony on our public lands," the BlueRibbon Coalition letter reads. "The (environmentalists) deliberately promote conflict. I hope you really didn't intend to support their selfish agendas."
Some of Idaho's most prominent conservationists were named in the letter. They are prominent figures who are often at odds with the BlueRibbon Coalition over public land access issues.
Clark Collins, the BlueRibbon Coalition's executive director, signed the letter, which continues:
"Perhaps that is not actually your position. Please reply outlining the level of your involvement in the preparation of this proposal and whether or not you agree with all it contains. If you only agree with parts of the documents please outline which parts you endorse.
"A lack of response on your part will leave us no choice but to assume that you are in total agreement with the document, and we will so inform our members. We look forward to your response."
The discourse has a bearing locally because the Sawtooth National Forest initiated a similar travel planning process in September. It is months behind the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, but as a baseline starting point, local managers are eliminating motorized cross-country travel throughout the management region, which stretches from Central Idaho to Utah.
A draft plan could be ready for public review late this winter, said Sawtooth National Forest Landscape Architect Terry Fletcher, who said he was concerned about the potential effect of Collins' letters.
"We don't want to be encouraging that type of thing," Fletcher said. "That just seems unhealthy to me. But beyond that, what BlueRibbon does, or any other organization for that matter, they speak for themselves."
In sum, however, Fletcher said he believes the letters were probably counterproductive.
"We'd like to hear everybody's interest," he said. "If any one party tries to do something that deters people's interest in something, it seems like that would be counter-productive."
Even if the letters came off as intimidating, that was not the goal, Collins said.
"The reason for the letter is: We had heard from some folks whose names were listed as signatory to the proposal. We had heard from some of those folks that they had not authorized for their name to be used in that way," Collins said. "I sent that letter to a bunch of the folks and did, in fact, find out that there were several people who were listed as signatory to that document who were not happy about how that whole thing had been handled.
"They didn't know about the entire context of it."
Collins said the alternative includes "very inflammatory" proposals that would remove motorized users from places where they enjoyed historical access. He said the Southern Idaho Recreation Association pushed the proposal, and the Forest Service took it.
Initially, Collins said the Forest Service's ideas looked good for motorized users. It was not a bad starting point, and BlueRibbon did not mobilize its constituency to participate in the process.
"I was surprised at the very serious lack of consideration that Southern Idaho Recreation Alliance document showed," he said.
But with his position already on the table, Collins conceded that his letter may have been unnecessarily inflammatory.
"In hindsight, perhaps the letter might have been worded differently," he said. "I understand that some folks didn't take the letter the way I intended. As far as discouraging people from taking part in the process, I didn't intend it to discourage people, but I think they need to be careful about how they comment and who they align themselves with because some of these people's input appears to have been misused."
According to Debrah Tiller, a landscape architect on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, the letter appeared, at first blush, to be pretty harmless.
"But it does concern me because it's going to inhibit the free comment period we'd like to have," she added. "I do know that it happens. It's not unheard of."
Greater Yellowstone Coalition Idaho Director Marv Hoyt, who was named in the letters, said the point appeared to be one of intimidation.
"Unfortunately, it has (intimidated) in some cases, and that's the down side," Hoyt said. "Most people were really ticked off about it. They were really upset about it."
Hoyt, too, believes such communication could stifle the public process, although he said it succeeded merely in riling most of the people who were contacted.
"People are going to be thinking twice now about how they want to comment or if they want to comment because they don't know what the repercussions are," Hoyt said. "I'm personally ticked off because this is an effort to stifle public comment in a public process."
In interviews, Collins and Southeast Idaho Recreation Alliance co-founder Dana Olson indirectly sparred with one another. Both said they had attempted to work in cooperation with the other. Both said the other had brushed off their efforts.
And Collins' forecast for the travel planning process on the Sawtooth National Forest was less than optimistic.
"I expect we will have some problems," he said. "If the land managers feel that every time they enter into a planning process, they need to accommodate that anti-motorized viewpoint, we've come to the realization they'll never quit harping on it until they've kicked us out completely. They want it all.
"They're not solving problems. They're creating more problems. I'd hate to see us ever get to the point where the motorized recreation community throws their hands up in the air and says, 'To hell with it. We'll go wherever we damn well please.' That doesn't help anybody, but there's potential for it to reach that point."
And that's what irks Olson.
"I guess the part that bothers me here is the intimidation factor and the 'report you to a certain group of people,'" she said. "I just think it's sad they had to resort to those kind of tactics instead of communicating and commenting on the travel plan like we're trying to do."
Olson said she doesn't expect the Forest Service to adopt her group's proposal line for line. But she said she hopes that at least the "quality stuff" will be used.
"I look at these existing plans and see how many trails are open to motorized use," she said. "We are asking for some reasonable access for non-motorized users," she said. "We're just asking for an opportunity for everybody to have the opportunity for a quality experience."