Baxter Gulch a hot topic
In the world of trail and travel management all roads lead to a long process, and the process for the local Travel Management Plan is in the appeals stage. In fact, several last-minute appeals over parts of the proposal were filed before the appeal deadline closed this week.
The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and the Gunnison Field Office for the Bureau of Land Management released the Records of Decision (RODs) for the Gunnison Travel Management planning effort on July 1.
The Gunnison Travel Management Plan was developed to manage different modes of travel on the public lands. The Plan dictates which trails are open to hiker and horse traffic, mountain bikers, and off-highway vehicles.
The public then had 30 days to review the BLM ROD, and 45 days to review the Forest Service ROD. One appeal was filed on the BLM ROD, after the 30-day window, and now the court and BLM attorneys need to determine if it’s a timely appeal or not.
By the Monday, August 16 deadline the Forest Service received nine total appeals, several of which have multiple organizations attached to them.
Some appeals of note: Members of the mountain bike community appealed the designation of Trail 565 up Baxter Gulch as non-mechanized, as well as some designations on trails in the Cement Creek drainage.
The High Country Citizens ’Alliance appealed the Carbon-Whetstone decision, one of four appeals filed by the non-profit conservation organization. The others include the overuse of dispersed camping exceptions, ignoring/not responding to specific trail comments, and another issue regarding minimum road system requirements.
HCCA executive director Dan Morse emphasized, “We think the overall travel management plan is very balanced between recreational needs and wants and environmental concerns. We want to strongly convey that. Except for these few items, we think that is true of the plan.”
Other appellants include the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, Continental Divide Trail Society, Cathedral Peak Landowner’s Association, local citizens John Chandler, Holly Annala and David Ochs, and a legal team representing several motorized groups.
The ninth appeal was filed jointly on Monday by the Wilderness Society, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative, and the Quiet Use Coalition.
Forest Service Travel Management Project planner Gary Shellhorn laid out the process going forward. “The appeals and litigation coordinator in our regional office will look at these appeals and determine what the appeal point is,” he explained. “An appeal has to be based on regulation. The key is, how the appellant believes the decisions specifically violate law, regulation, or policy.
“Then a review team outside of this forest looks at the record to see if we did fail to do one of those things,” Shellhorn continued. “If they do find that’s the case, they send it back to us to fix. If we aren’t remanded and they determine there are no appeal issues, we could implement the project on October 1. That’s when we could implement the decision, and we’d need to publish a motor vehicle use map. That’s when we could implement it on the ground, once the map is made available to the public.”
Locally, implementation of the final travel plan will be up to Gunnison district ranger John Murphy. “The actual implementation of this doesn’t begin until we have a motor vehicle use map that is published,” he said. “Those maps are put out on a yearly basis. Given the time it will take to resolve the appeals we have, it doesn’t make sense to produce a 2010 map. Our thought is the first maps would be available beginning in 2011. During the first year of publication of the map, we’d be really in ‘education mode,’ about what this means and what is permissible. We’re also going to have a tremendous amount of work to do with installing new signs. We have a lot of work to do on the ground. The first year we also allow the public to point out errors on the map. The first one might not be perfect.”
A little-used, little-known trail up Baxter Gulch is stirring passions in the community from the Travel Plan appeals process to Crested Butte Town Council meetings (see story page 1). Trail 565 is comprised of 1.7 miles of faint, forgotten singletrack that historically was open to all modes of travel. The new Forest Plan designates 565 as non-motorized; technically, people could ride a bike down it until this decision.
“In the 2001 Travel Restrictions that was just listed as a ‘trail,’” said Shellhorn. “When we did the EIS, we had to determine the existing mode of travel, and the existing mode was non-motorized. And no one argued with us. It wasn’t really on anybody’s radar screen. When we did the travel analysis, we did have a fair amount of conversation about Baxter Gulch. The trails guy went out, and said it was really hard to find the trail.”
With a proposed trail easement on the table to provide new access to Baxter Gulch, there is renewed interest in Trail 565 from the mountain bike community because of its ability to connect to other trails in Baxter Gulch like Carbon Creek, and an obscure primitive ride called “Para mi, Para ti.”
Dave Ochs, treasurer of CBMBA, said, “Historically it  has always been a multi-use trail. The Carbon Creek Trail retained its historic use and designation. The trails back there are in dire need of maintenance; Trail 565 is very primitive and not so sustainable. It could use a lot more modern technique to keep water off it and have it contour better.
“And it would add another fantastic amenity to this town, and add to our main form of summer tourism—mountain biking. I think this trail would help reinforce that.”
While the Forest Service isn’t opposed to hearing the case for changing the designation of Trail 565, they aren’t chomping at the bit to take on another project when the details of the easement aren’t settled. Never mind the fact that the Forest Plan itself still isn’t finalized. The Forest Service would also need to be convinced there is an “identifiable need for change.”
“My sense is that we’re not going to entertain any need for change until we cement the decision we have on the table,” said Shellhorn. “I don’t think in two weeks it will be ripe; it’s driven by ‘when is there an identifiable need for change.’ My sense right now, being a planner, is it’s a little early. There is a process in place to handle this; it would have another element of public involvement.”
Shellhorn broke down the process by which the designation of Trail 565 could change after the Travel Plan is finalized. “The town and the interest groups have to convince the district ranger that there’s a need for change. What CBMBA is saying is, ‘There’s a need for change.’ We would need to go out and notice this as a project, something we’re going to do an environmental assessment on. That would require a public comment period, public meetings.
“A lot of this is very speculative,” Shellhorn continued. “What drives the federal government is if the local government comes to us and says, ‘We’d like you to review this decision.’ It still needs to be ripe. When do we need to make the change, why would we bust our butt to make this change when they haven’t even obtained the [new] trail?’”
It would have been much easier to talk about changing the designation of Trail 565 during the planning process, but it flew under the radar until the new Baxter Gulch easement came into play. Changing the travel regulations on 565 during the appeals process will require proving that the Forest Service violated regulations, law, or policy when they made the decision. And as of now that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“Picking up this agenda right after we make the final decision makes it kind of awkward,” explained Shellhorn. “There’s still a process out there to deal with this, deal with it through the normal course of project development approval. We’d have to make a new or different decision. This is still pretty darn speculative, we’ll wait until all that comes together then we’ll see if there’s a need for change.”