Friday, January 11, 2008

Motorized users express outrage over BLM travel plan

Snowmobiles don?t harm wintering big game, they claim

Express Staff Writer

Facing a largely hostile crowd Wednesday night, John Kurtz, outdoor recreation manager in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management?s Shoshone Field Office, explains the basis for the draft ?Blaine County Cooperative Conservation Recreation and Travel Plan,? being developed in cooperation with Blaine County. Photo by David N. Seelig

What will be the impacts of a draft travel plan, still under development, that would guide the management of motorized and non-motorized recreationists on 160,000 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in the southern Wood River Valley?

Depends on whom you ask.

At a meeting at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey Wednesday night, members of the local motorized recreation community repeatedly accused the county and BLM of trying to keep them from recreating on those scenic lands. Lined up in the crosshairs of their angry barrage was the "Blaine County Cooperative Conservation Recreation and Travel Plan," which spells out how those BLM and state-owned lands located on both sides of the valley will be managed in the coming years.

The plan also spells out future management of the large area in separate winter and summer recreation maps attached to the 57-page document.

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 that method to expedite the planning process. Once the commission makes its vote, the recommended travel plan will go to the BLM for final consideration.

Most vexing for the speakers who described themselves as motorized recreationists during the meeting is the plan's proposed seasonal closure area for wintering big game like mule deer and elk. Throughout a series of public meetings that stretched through last fall and into this year, the closure area, which would be closed to motorized and non-motorized recreationists alike only when harsh winter conditions warrant, has drawn intense opposition, mostly from motorized users.

In what appears to be at least partly due to this dramatic opposition, the extent of the proposed seasonal closure area has been sizably decreased. But that has not satisfied many motorized users, who claim there is no justification for the closure and say it should be done away with entirely.

On Wednesday, many of these speakers said the only negative impact on wintering deer and elk is the area's growing gray wolf population. They claimed snowmobiles do not harm deer or elk in any way.

The disparity between the claims of motorized users and those of biologists and other government officials means the county needs to provide more time for public comment, others said.

"There are a lot of people who aren't aware of what is going on," said Bellevue resident and motorized recreationist John Delorenzo.

Apparently questioning the validity of wildlife data provided by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game as justification for the proposed winter closure, Delorenzo said the travel plan needs to be based on "true science."

He said more weight should be given to the wildlife observations of motorized recreationists, which he claimed are out and about more often in the places deer and elk inhabit during the winter. More than the pressure from motorized use, wolves are to blame, he said.

Delorenzo also said wolves are pushing the elk down out of the higher areas they used to occupy and into more residential areas.

"We are very concerned about the survival of elk and deer and other species," he said.

As in previous meetings, a litany of similarly pro-motorized and anti-travel-plan comments continued for close to an hour. For the most part, the same speakers made similar comments during the meeting as they have during the earlier meetings.

Having apparently heard enough, the county commissioners ended the discussion, saying at some point that they'll have to debate the draft travel plan and make their decision.

"These kinds of comments could go on forever," Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said. "I do think we need to set a limit."

With all of the county commissioners in agreement, the three-member County Commission chose Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 5 p.m., as the deadline for the public to submit comments on the draft travel plan. They also set their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 29, as the day they'll begin deliberating on the travel plan.

Comments can be dropped off at county offices at 206 First Ave. S. in Hailey or by e-mail at

Schoen also made a point to say that within the winter closure areas, the draft travel plan envisions keeping open to snowmobilers and other recreationists key routes into upper elevation high country not closed to recreational use to protect wintering big game.

"You'd have a designated route," he said. "That's an important distinction."

A lengthy presentation on the wintering biology of deer and elk and the justifications for closing certain areas off to protect them during the winter by Fish and Game biologist Mike McDonald apparently was not enough to convince the motorized recreationists, either.

Further complicating the task at hand is the checkerboard mixture of public and private lands that dominates the area. Especially when it comes to the plan's intended summer closures of some roads on public and private lands in the area, that is where things seem most confusing for some.

Under the draft plan, the closure of roads would only extend to larger four-wheeled vehicles, while uses such as motorbikes, mountain bikes and hiking would still be allowed beyond barriers installed to stop vehicular traffic.

In general, the intent is to consider closing all or portions of county roads that cross private lands, said John Kurtz, outdoor recreation manager for the BLM's Shoshone Field Office.

On these roads, which are considered county roads due to longstanding historical use, much of it related to past mining activities, the county will consider possible points beyond which county maintenance would cease, Schoen said in an interview. Again, beyond such a closure point, uses like motorbikes, mountain bikes and hiking would still be allowed.

Kurtz said that on public lands, the only roads currently being considered for closure to four-wheeled vehicles include Kelly, Bullion, Red Elephant and Democrat gulches, all of which drain from out of the northwest into Croy Canyon, which itself is west of Hailey.

For the road-closure portion of the travel planning process, the county commissioners seemed amenable to delaying their decision. Because of their plans to go out in the field this spring to consider which roads should be closed, the commissioners also agreed to hold a separate meeting for the public to comment on any proposed road closures.

"I guess we maybe do need to have another meeting," Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said to the crowd. "You can count on it."

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