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Prominent Colorado forest may ban bikes from dozens of trails

From International Mountain Bicycling Association -- October, 1999

The National Forest that surrounds Aspen, Vail, Glenwood Springs and Breckenridge, Colorado, is proposing widespread closures of trails to mountain bikers. The proposed closures appear to stem from a shift in the agency's approach to forest management from a position of balancing recreation with resource protection to one that places a higher priority on ecosystem health.

In Breckenridge, the Summit Fat Tire Society is alarmed. Club leader Laura Rossetter estimates that as many as 30 trails in the Dillon Ranger District alone may be closed. Some of these closures would apply to all users, while others would exclude only mountain bikers and/or motorized vehicles. The plan does not provide scientific data or any other justification for the selective closures. The plan takes a similar, but less restrictive, approach to trails in the six other ranger districts within the forest.

Rossetter notes that the agency failed to identify and plan for many significant but unofficial "social" trails in the Dillon Ranger District. The new Plan would close all routes not identified and designated open.

Underlying the closures, the new science of conservation biology points to the need for large expanses of wild lands where humans and human developments are scarce. Colorado's Rocky Mountains are a good place for that, and about one-third of the White River has been designated Wilderness. "This is the largest Wilderness proportion of any national forest in Colorado and represents 24% of all national forest Wilderness in the state," the plan notes. Yet significant undeveloped landscapes often the places mountain bikers like to ride remain unprotected. The proposed plan would devote substantial acreage to habitat for "forest carnivores," particularly the rare and threatened lynx and wolverine.

Rossetter agreed with the principle that roads and trails can impact wildlife, and said some closures are okay: "I think all trail users should ask themselves whether every road and trail on the National Forest is truly needed. Some closures to all users are probably appropriate to support the health of the ecosystem."

But the science studying the effects of recreationists on wildlife is young, and there are very few studies comparing the impacts of different user groups on animals. "We need to see evidence that justifies the closures, particularly when they close routes to bicycling, but not to hiking and horseback," Rossetter maintained. The plan does not provide rationale for the proposed trail closures.

To its credit, the Draft White River Plan breaks mountain bikes into a category separate from motorcycles, ATVs, and automobiles, and it closes fewer bicycling routes than would the proposal put forth by conservation groups.

Rossetter questioned the agency's plans to maintain or increase logging on the White River National Forest. The plan would increase the acres deemed "suitable" for timber harvest from 359,000 to 434,000. To what extent will that activity help, or harm, the ecosystems that the plan seeks to protect and enhance? She also doubts the ability of the Forest Service to implement the plan. The Forest Service conducted very few user group meetings as part of the trail designation process.

The Forest Service is taking comments until November 5, but the Summit Fat Tire Society said that's not enough time. In a letter to Forest Supervisor, Martha J. Ketelle, the club asked for a separate travel planning process. "Because of the dramatic closures proposed for mountain bikes, cyclists may overreact and not support recommendations that, if we had time to really evaluate, may actually be acceptable," they explained. As of press time, the Supervisor had not replied.

The White River National Forest attracts visitors from all 50 states and many other countries. Public comment on the Draft Forest Plan is encouraged.

The comment period for the Proposed Revised Land and Resource Management Plan (Proposed Revised Forest Plan) and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) has been extended an additional 90 days to February 9, 2000.

The Draft White River Plan and EIS is on the web at: