Friday, November 9, 2007

Changes are likely to BLM plan

Winter closure area deemed too large

Express Staff Writer

Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist Mike McDonald points to a map for a proposed BLM travel plan during a public meeting Wednesday at the old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

A proposed winter closure of a large swath of BLM land in southern Blaine County, intended to protect deer and elk, is likely to be considerably reduced following complaints by snowmobilers and predator hunters that it would interfere with their activities there.

The closure is part of a proposed U.S. Bureau of Land Management travel plan that would restrict motorized use to designated roads and trails.

About 30 people turned out for the second public meeting on the plan, held before the county commissioners on Wednesday, Nov. 7. A final meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3 at the old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

Work on the plan began two years ago when the commissioners told the BLM that unrestricted motor vehicle use was causing damage to hillsides and riparian areas. It includes an area from near Ketchum south to U.S. Highway 20, on both sides of U.S. Highway 75, in a more-or-less triangular shape about 30 miles across at its base.

The plan sets out summer and winter travel designations, divided primarily into motorized and non-motorized zones. The winter plan is the more controversial, due mainly to a large area on both sides of Highway 75 proposed for closure to all public use. The closure covers most of the BLM-managed land east of the highway.

"From a snowmobiler point of view, this is a massive closure," Hailey resident Owen Downard told the commissioners.

Hailey resident Bill Ward said hunters use the area in the winter to shoot coyotes and mountain lions preying on deer herds.

"What you have in the ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) is every place I hunt," Ward said. "I want to continue to hunt. There has to be predator control."

Mike McDonald, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, called the plan an "important first step" in protecting wintering wildlife. However, he said the department had mapped more specific areas of high-density use by deer and elk within the proposed closure area. Fish and Game biologist Dave Parrish said the department has no intention of interfering with predator hunting.

"Maybe we could have some criteria set up that would trigger closures," Parrish said.

Commissioner Tom Bowman said the Fish and Game maps would be incorporated into the BLM map before the public meeting in December to reduce the proposed winter closure area.

Summer use in the planning area is complicated by a checkerboard pattern of private and public land. In many places, people using the myriad of primitive roads there don't know when they're on public land and when they're crossing private land. Many landowners have allowed people to trespass without any formal permission to do so. In an interview after Wednesday's meeting, BLM Recreation Specialist John Kurtz said many of the proposed travel routes cross private property.

"Those are routes that we will try to get easements on," Kurtz said. "But that doesn't mean that even though it's proposed as a route, the general public has a right to go there without trespassing. A private property right can trump our proposal."

During the meeting, Kurtz said most road closures would be of roads either on private land or that dead-end on private land. Even so, some people objected to the remaining closures.

"I love extreme motorized recreation, and you're shutting me off," Hailey resident Elbie Bellon said.

David Sundholm, president of the local chapter of the Idaho Mountain Dirt Riders Association, a group of motorcyclists, said he had no serious problems with the proposed travel plan.

Lily Simpson, the plan's project coordinator, emphasized that the proposal now before the public is only a beginning.

"This is a people's process," she said.

Following the December public meeting, the county commissioners will make recommendations to the BLM. In developing a final plan, the BLM will be required to follow a process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, which includes a 60-day public comment period.

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