Standing around in ballcaps and blue jeans near a gas compressor plant, the Montezuma County commissioners looked at home shooting the breeze about ranching, local characters and historic lore that occasionally delved into the creative non-fiction realm.
But they began to get annoyed when the subject of road closures in the forest came up, while waiting for a tour by Forest Service officials — set up to explain why some roads are decommissioned.
Their impatience, due to a late start, mirrored a simmering aggravation that public land managers are rushing to close roads as part of a newly passed travel management plan the county tried unsuccessfully to stop.
But during a two-hour excursion in the Boggy Draw area, explanation of the reasoning behind some road closures appeared to ease the mood.
Non-service roads, unauthorized user-created roads and temporary roads installed to access logging areas are subject to closures under the plan, said Derek Padilla, district ranger for the San Juan National Forest.
And doing so gets a mixed reaction from the public.
“Some people will say ‘It’s about time they closed that!’ Others say the opposite: ‘I’ve been going on that road for years, and I’m go to keep going there!’” Padilla said. “It really runs the gamut.”
Drivers risk a ticket if they go around closures, but they are also hurting wildlife and hunting opportunities, according to forest officials and their research.
“Wildlife require tracts of solitude from roads and traffic so they are not disturbed. That doesn’t happen if there is a road within a quarter mile in multiple directions,” he said.
Land managers try to keep roads at least a half mile apart from each other, and close roads in between, especially if they go to the same place.
Commissioners have gone on record before as believing wildlife is more resilient and tolerant than is perceived by forest officials.
“I hear what you saying, but I am somewhat at odds that roads hurt game,” said county commissioner Keenan Ertel. “This looks like a nice place to camp for a few days and ride four-wheelers.”
On a road near McPhee Park, the convoy of SUVs takes a spur, then another and stops at a dispersed camping spot.
A closed route here is blocked by a couple of large boulders, and the road surface has “ripped” by heavy equipment to dissuade use. It is heavily seeded and scattered with forest debris in an attempt to erase evidence a road was ever there.
“We went down 4-6 inches instead of 8 inches and did not berm it up,” explained Debbie Kill, a conservation specialist with the forest service.
More aggressive tactics where roads are heavily bermed and torn up have not been popular and are less aesthetically acceptable to the forest users.
“This looks better than ripped roads I’ve seen around Mancos,” observed commissioner Steve Chappell
But the more gentle approach is contingent on public reaction, Padilla said at another stop. When closures are ignored, officials ratchet up enforcement.
“It all depends. If it gets bad, then it could become gated,” he said. “But as you can see, the seed has come in on this old logging sale road and you can barely tell there was ever a road here, so that helps keeps people from driving on it.”
At McPhee Park, the group takes a walk along a newly decommissioned road to a pond.
“From a bird’s-eye view you can see how this area is bordered by roads,” Kill says, a justification for cutting one out that splits a nice refuge and water source for wildlife.
Padilla adds that planners are careful to allow access to dispersed camping areas.
“If there is a good spot near a road closure like here, then we will try and close the road beyond where the camp is so the camp can still be used,” he said.
Chappell said he appreciated keeping dispersed hunting camps open, but warned against condensing forest use into single areas such as the Boggy Draw mountain bike trail system.
“The road to the trailhead is getting beat up. The residents are having to deal with increased traffic and dust, and we hear about it,” he said.
The group discussed how paving the mile-long access road would solve a lot of issues.
Access to firewood-cutting areas is a major goal for forest officials. Currently firewood permits are available for Haycamp Mesa, behind McPhee Park, and Carlisle Point on the Dolores-Norwood Road.
“That is an important traditional use in the community,” Padilla said.
The area is crisscrossed by old railroad grades from a century ago when logging was a big industry here. The flat grades of railroad corridors are attractive to ATV’s, motorcycles and mountain bikers, but they are considered off-limits to motorized use because railroad grades fall under historic preservation laws, officials said.
Commissioners wondered why logging is less active nowadays. Forester Mark Krabath explained that there is not much demand by lumber mills for the smaller pines, and sales that are offered often don’t get takers. But there is a potential market for bio-fuel material in the region.
“We’re trying to promote small tree utilization and the opportunity for bio-fuels, so anything you can do to help get the word out would be appreciated,” he said.
Balancing recreation with wildlife habitat and commercial uses is the challenge for forest managers. Padilla said he feels concessions were made under the controversial Boggy-Glade travel management plan.
Off-road game retrieval is allowed during hunting season, which goes against national forest standards elsewhere. And there are more roads per square mile than is the norm in other forests.
“A lot of the concessions being made are from recommendations from county commissioners,” Padilla said.
Rumors tend to fizzle during information tours. Outcry that access had been cutoff to McPhee Park, an old growth preserve left by Montezuma Lumber Co., is exaggerated, and people can still view the 150-year old ponderosa pines.
A new road map for the Boggy-Glade area is being drawn up and will soon be distributed to the public.
“We will make a big splash when that comes out, and make sure everyone knows where they can pick one up,” Kill said.