The popularity of outdoor recreation in Blaine County is exploding.
So is the population in the southern Wood River Valley.
The combination is stressing public lands, and one agency responsible for managing them.
"I've been riding up here for the better part of 20 years," Randy Van Dyke, a cross-country motorcyclist, told the Blaine County Commission earlier this week during a meeting with the Bureau of Land Management. "There used to be five or six of us. Now there are hundreds."
Hikers, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and hunters are all increasing in number in the Wood River Valley. As use increases, space decreases, and rogue trails—illegally constructed by users—become more frequent. So does conflict.
"It's all across the board. It's difficult to point a finger at one user group," said John Kurtz, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM's field office in Shoshone. "Demand in this valley has always been great. Now we're seeing more and more."
In response, the BLM, which manages most of the public land along the Wood River Valley from Ketchum south, is in the midst of creating a recreation plan that could designate areas specific to each user group.
There are more than 12 million BLM acres in the state of Idaho, including 605,664 acres in Blaine County, according to Heather Tiel, public affairs specialist for the BLM's Twin Falls district.
Aware of the sensitive relationship between motorized and non-motorized users—specifically over the terrain they share—Kurtz and Project Coordinator Lili Simpson stressed that the plan is not designed to segregate the two groups. Instead, it should be viewed as a benefit to all user groups, from dog walkers to mountain bikers to motorcyclists, they contend.
"What everybody needs to understand is this is not about separating motorized zones from non-motorized zones," Simpson said. "It's not about separation of uses. It's about finding what people want."
The proposed plan, which has been in the works for close to two years, was unveiled Tuesday to the Blaine County Commission. The commission, which directed the BLM to conduct the study, will host its own public review of the proposed plan in the coming months.
"These are just proposals. We're still in the planning phase," Kurtz cautioned. "This is really a county plan. The county will make a recommendation to the BLM about how they want to proceed."
The plan is similar to one created by the Winter Recreation Coalition six years ago to resolve an ongoing conflict between snowmobilers and backcountry skiers in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area north of Ketchum. But the BLM's plan is more comprehensive since it's taking numerous user groups into account.
Beginning about a year ago, Kurtz and Simpson began hosting a series of focus groups to collect feedback from just about every conceivable BLM land user in the county. Over the next few months they met with 14 different user groups and more than 150 people representing a consortium of activities, including hiking, mountain biking, hunting, horseback riding, ranching and motorized recreation. One group was comprised entirely of Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials. Another was directed by representatives of the county's youth.
The groups discussed the areas they most enjoy to use, and why.
Using that feedback, the BLM crafted a plan it believed would best represent the interests of each user group.
Kurtz said the eventual creation of designated areas is not meant to segregate users as much as it is to cater to each individual user group.
For example, areas designated for motorized use will include features specific to that activity, like larger parking lots and wider trails built to meet the physical demands of motorcycles and ATVs.
"It should really be looked at as opportunities rather than limiting aspects," Kurtz said. "This whole process is about providing opportunities so that opportunities don't incrementally get taken away from any user group."
The new plan represents something of a shift in the management tactics of the BLM, which oversees 258 million surface acres in the West and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate. Energy, minerals and grazing are the traditional bread and butter programs on the agency's land.
But the BLM is now "definitely taking a more aggressive approach toward recreation," Kurtz said.
So aggressive that recreation trumped the formation of the BLM's resource management plan in Blaine County. It has been on hold for three years.
"With the growth and all of the issues going on with recreation in the valley we determined we couldn't wait to do the recreation plan," Kurtz said.
Along with the new recreation plan will come new trails, which should also curb the construction of rogue trails.
Kurtz said the new trails will incorporate Fish and Game data to avoid critical wildlife areas and they will "meet the best management practice in terms of trail construction, lay out and design."
"They will be constructed to be sustainable and to meet the user's expectations," he added.
On Tuesday the commissioners applauded Kurtz and Simpson for their work.
"I have always thought that recreational zoning made a lot of sense," said Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Micheal. "That way you know what you can expect in the backcountry. I think predictability is really important for users."
Michael was echoed by Becki Keefer, chairwoman of the Hailey Parks and Lands Board.
"Comprehensive planning is always the way to go, and this is just wonderful," she said.
Results of the BLM's study can be viewed on the county's Web site at www.blainecounty.org.