Local law enforcement officials are expressing concern regarding the possibility of confrontation between residents of Montezuma and Dolores counties and U.S. Forest Service officials.
The fears stem from a sense of unrest among locals over forest service travel management decisions, said Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell.
Right now, that is one of my biggest worries, Spruell said. People in the community really have a sense that their freedoms are being taken away, and it is a huge concern how they are going to act on that once the snows melt.
Community members and officials from both local counties have been at odds with the forest services over a number of decisions regarding travel management in the Mancos-Cortez region as well as the Boggy-Glade region.
Tensions heightened after the release of the Boggy-Glade plan on Aug. 12, 2010. The plan, which has been remanded for further review, proposed the closure of 155 miles of forest roads within the Thomas and Glad Mountain, Boggy Draw, Dolores Rim and Glade Canyon priority areas. Roughly 354 miles of forest roads would remain open under the plan.
Some of these roads need to be closed, Spruell said. But the way (the forest service) went about doing it was wrong. People feel we have Big Brother coming in and telling us what to do with our forests and it is not OK.
On Feb. 4, more than 100 community members expressed their concerns with forest service decisions by staging a protest march from the intersection of Colorado Highways 145 and 184 to the Dolores Public Lands Office. The march and rally remained peaceful, but many citizens expressed anger over federal agency actions.
Spruell stated he will enforce the law regardless of circumstance, but he said he believes the forest service is forcing local residents into an untenable position by pushing through an unpopular management decision.
If a forest service personnel is attacked, I will do everything in my power to protect them, Spruell said. But, at the same time, I think they are really bringing it on themselves. They are putting their law enforcement in huge jeopardy. It does make me scared and nervous of what people might do if forced into confrontation.
Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin agreed that the situation is unstable.
Ive got serious concerns for the safety of the forest service officials and the people I represent, Martin said. This is a huge issue, and there are strong and serious concerns. I certainly dont want to see anything negative happen, but I think we are on a collision course with something of that nature.
San Juan Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles disagreed with the sheriffs statements, noting that progress has been made during discussions between county and forest service officials.
Im not sure we would buy into the premise that things are stacking up for an event, Stiles said. I think much more effective communication is taking place. I dont want to diminish what we are hearing from the public, but I think the conflict is less than what you might hear from folks.
At the heart of the debate over roads is Montezuma and Dolores counties contention that some of the roads slated for closure are historic county roads, eligible for protection under U.S. Revised Statute 2477. Though neither county has made an official claim to a road, both have stated the forest service needs to exercise caution in closing historic roads.
In the past, Spruell has said he will not hesitate to arrest forest service officials closing roads illegally. In an interview on March 1, Spruell took a step back from past statements.
If they start closing roads they are not legally able to close, I will take action, he said. It would be a class three misdemeanor for blocking a roadway. Typically speaking, they would be written a ticket.
Martin was more cautious in discussing any action he might take.
I am here to uphold the law, and there are appropriate actions to do that, Martin said. I do not want this confrontation between the people of the community I grew up in and the public lands officials. I think we need to work very diligently to resolve this matter.
Stiles declined to comment on statements made by law enforcement officials.
Im not going to comment on statements made by others, he said. But if people are breaking the law, I would expect my sheriffs office to take action.
Once the snow melts in the high country, the public can expect to see further implementation of travel management plans, Stiles said. However, he noted forest service actions most likely will be tempered by more community involvement.
I dont think you could say we will do things exactly how we have been, he said. I think you will see a different level of public notice and involvement.
Overall, interaction between the public and the forest service has been positive, Stiles said.
I think anytime people are engaged it is positive, he said. Even if you disagree, you are talking. I do think we have better communication in both counties than just a few months ago.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at [email protected]