Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Confusion plagues BLM travel plan meeting

Fears that large areas of valley would be closed to motorized use are untrue, officials say

Express Staff Writer

A proposed travel plan being developed to guide future management of public lands in the southern Wood River Valley would continue to allow various types of motorized and non-motorized recreational uses on most of the lands the plan covers, officials said Monday. Photo by David N. Seelig

The decades-old debate that pits motorized and non-motorized recreationists against each other came to a head during a lengthy meeting in Hailey Monday night.

Speaking before the three-member Blaine County Commission, a long line of motorized recreationists expressed fears that a draft plan being formulated to manage recreation on public lands in the southern Wood River Valley would shut them off from backcountry areas they've recreated on for years.

At the center of the night's debate was the "Blaine County Cooperative Conservation Recreation and Travel Plan," which spells out how the approximately 160,000 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management and state-owned lands located on both sides of the valley will be managed in the coming years. The plan also spells out the future management of the large area in separate winter and summer recreation maps attached to the 57-page document.

But according to their reading of the document and the accompanying maps, the plan is nothing more than a blueprint for stopping motorized users from recreating on public lands owned by all Americans. Joining the motorized recreationists in attacking the plan were several horseback riders who said they use the same lands for their own type of recreating.

Summing up the overriding sentiment Monday night was Bellevue resident Ken Worthington, who expressed fears that the plan would unfairly penalize motorized recreationists.

"I think the public lands should be open to the people. I just hate to see any place closed off," Worthington told the commissioners.

In truth, a careful reading of the travel plan as it is now written shows that it doesn't actually close off the number of areas these speakers apparently believe it will.

After the meeting, John Kurtz, outdoor recreation manager for the BLM's Shoshone Field Office, explained his view on what the real impact of the plan would be. In addition to several other BLM and Blaine County officials, Kurtz has been instrumental in helping to develop the draft travel plan.

Kurtz said that while the document does prioritize certain types of recreational use in the 14 different recreation management areas that are proposed by the plan, that doesn't mean other types of recreational uses would be prohibited in every one of the particular areas. For example, while an area tentatively dubbed the Lee's Gulch-Bunker Hill zone on the summer map would prioritize horseback riding over other uses, Kurtz noted that motorized recreationists, mountain bikers and hikers could still recreate on the roads and trails found in the hilly area west of Bellevue.

He said that rather than excluding one or more types of recreational use from the different zones, the plan in large part just prioritizes what kinds of recreational amenities would be built in order to support the prioritized use in each of the different areas. In the Lee's Gulch-Bunker Hill zone, the idea is to build amenities like horse ramps and hitching posts at new trailheads, as well as to design new trails with equestrian needs in mind.

Motorized recreationists, mountain bikers and hikers could still use these amenities in the Lee's Gulch-Bunker Hill zone, but their needs wouldn't be prioritized in that particular area. The same would go for the Rotarun West-Cove Creek zone, which would prioritize motorized use through the construction of new single-track and loop trail opportunities in the large area west of Hailey.

Kurtz said only a few of the zones proposed under the plan would restrict what types of recreational uses could take place. These include the Rotarun East zone immediately west of Hailey, which would limit uses to non-motorized single-track mountain biking and hiking, and the Ohio Gulch and East Magic motocross zones, where recreational use would be limited to motocross riders.

He said the main idea of the plan is to enhance the experiences for different public lands users by constructing amenities appropriate for each recreational group.

As things stand right now, the entire area is managed under what the BLM calls an open designation, meaning that all of the lands, both roaded and unroaded, are open and accessible to all. Under the draft plan, the majority of the area, except for the small East Magic Motocross zone, would be managed under what the BLM calls a limited designation.

Under this type of designation, motorized recreation would be limited to designated roads and trails to help protect the fragile landscape these backcountry routes pass through. The designation would continue to allow hikers and horseback riders to go off trails and roads into undeveloped areas.

Kurtz said the move to manage BLM lands under a limited designation isn't happening only in Blaine County, but, rather, is an example of an ongoing trend taking place on federal lands throughout Idaho and across the country. He said that with the explosion of off-road vehicle use that's been seen throughout the United States in the past few decades, the days of allowing people to drive wherever they want are over.

So, to accomplish the plan's primary aim—continued recreational access managed in a more sustainable manner—it also seeks to identify the hundreds of roads, jeep tracks and trails that already exist in the area. A third map attached to the document shows what routes have been identified so far, both on public lands and private lands in the area.

What Kurtz and other recreational planners working on the travel plan hope to accomplish with the public's help is to identify which of these routes should remain open to best assist the needs of the various recreationists. While in some cases routes would be closed because they've been deemed unnecessary, many others would be designated as open and available for motorized and non-motorized users.

The criteria the planners will use to determine which routes should remain open or closed relate back to the goals laid out in the plan. These include creating loop routes and connections to different drainages for non-motorized and motorized recreationists alike, as well as to provide additional single-track and loop trail opportunities.

Kurtz said that no one involved in the process wants to shut out anyone.

"We want to maintain access to public land," he said.

However, the multiple use mandate federal land managers must abide by doesn't state that each and every use should be allowed on each and every acre, Kurtz said. He said conflicts inevitably arise when you're trying to be all things to all people.

"This plan is in compliance with our multiple use mandate," he said.

Generating appreciative comments from some in the crowd were a host of recent changes to the winter use map that greatly reduces the size of a proposed seasonal closure area for wintering wildlife. The zone will likely limit recreational use during certain portions of the winter based on an as-yet-to-be-agreed-upon set of criteria considering weather conditions and how they impact wildlife.

Increased in size under the revised winter use map are separate motorized and non-motorized recreational areas.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners agreed to a tentative date of Wednesday, Jan. 9, for their next meeting on the proposed travel plan. During that meeting, proposed winter designations and the wildlife-related issues will be discussed.

At some point after the current public comment period ends, the Blaine County Commission will vote on the proposed BLM travel plan. BLM and county officials chose to use the method to expedite the planning process. Once the commission makes their vote, the recommended travel plan will go to the BLM for final consideration.

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