A Buena Vista-based off-road group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Pike-San Isabel National Forest supervisor over her decision to end motorized recreation on roads used by four-wheel drive enthusiasts since the 1980s.
The decision permanently closed approximately 120 miles of open motorized routes, plus several other routes that had been temporarily closed under previous actions, say the plaintiffs.
Patrick McKay, who filed the lawsuit with Marcus Trusty and the group Colorado Off Road Enterprise on Feb. 14, says it marks the latest chapter in a long-running controversy over roads in Wildcat Canyon, located about an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs on the border between Teller and Park counties and along the South Platte River.
“The entire travel management process was driven from the start by extremist environmental groups and anti-motorized activists within the Forest Service itself,” says McKay.
The lawsuit alleges supervisor Diana Trujillo’s decision, published in September, to close 12 roads spanning Teller, Park, El Paso and Douglas counties was based on “erroneous, flawed, and incomplete information” that made it arbitrary, violating the law.
The claim cites five roads in Wildcat Canyon that appear nationally in guidebooks and on websites. The canyon burned in the 2002 Hayman Fire, which torched 138,000 acres, and was subsequently closed to off-roading until 2004. But following an extensive Environmental Impact Study focused on the potential designation of the South Platte as a Wild and Scenic River, the agency determined that motorized use could continue in the area should the Forest Service choose to reopen it. The river was eligible for “‘scenic’ rather than ‘wild’ status specifically for the purpose of allowing motorized use of these roads to continue,” the study read.
The roads in question have remained points of contention between Pike-San Isabel forest and members of the off-road community ever since. McKay says that while easements along the South Platte were granted to Teller County in 2004, the agency refused to grant them to Park County. As a result, only half of the popular Wildcat Canyon trail network was reopened, resulting in the severing of two popular four-wheel-drive loops and the disappointment of Colorado’s motorized recreation community.
With the area closed, off-road volunteer groups, like ones maintaining routes on the Teller County side of Wildcat, couldn’t maintain the roads in Park County, McKay says. He blames the Forest Service for letting the roads “deteriorate while they were in limbo, even though they continued to be regularly driven by members of the public who were unaware they were closed.”
He also blames certain Forest Service employees for dissuading the agency from conducting a National Environmental Policy Act analysis, calling them “anti-motorist activists” who want to shut down all roads in the forest including some that lead “even to trailheads.”
Among 41 exhibits the plaintiffs provided in the lawsuit are several emails dating from 2012 to 2019. In them, various Pike-San Isabel employees appear to be struggling with how to address the situation.
Court documents show Park County requesting easements beginning in 2011. The Forest Service didn’t dive into the matter until 2014. In 2015, it initiated a travel management plan and began considering if it should update the 2004 Environmental Assessment, which determined all of Wildcat Canyon could be reopened.
The lawsuit shows that in 2015, South Park District Ranger Josh Voorhis sent an email to the Pike-San Isabel’s NEPA expert saying Park County was preparing a fifth request for an easement and asking if the 2004 assessment was still sufficient. The NEPA expert responded yes and added an explicit determination had been made that opening the roads in Park County to motorized users would not have an adverse impact on sensitive, threatened or endangered wildlife in the area.
That same year, another Pike-San Isabel wildlife biologist visited the roads in Teller County and admitted they “looked pretty good for the most part” thanks to maintenance done by off-road groups, but that in Park County, “it was immediately obvious the land is suffering from uncontrolled use and no maintenance.” She thought a new NEPA process was needed to “thoroughly describe the current conditions.”
But emails included in the lawsuit show Pike-San Isabel rangers starting to discuss keeping the roads closed before the 2016 Environmental Impact Study.
In 2017, Gary Morrison, an engineer and travel planner for Pike-San Isabel, recommended that the districts wait to see results of the EIS before considering opening the Wildcat roads.
In response, Voorhis wrote, “how and why are we analyzing the EIS Wildcat reopening. As ranger, I never requested this. Who slipped this in?”
To which South Platte District Ranger Brian Banks replied, “I concur with Josh. We specifically … agreed we did not want it in the EIS.”
The lawsuit alleges that in 2019, the South Park and South Platte Ranger Districts continued their efforts to decommission roads in Park County “without NEPA review by seeking funding to remove long standing barriers and stockpiling materials to facilitate their goal.”
In September of that year, they issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the area, and, after a public comment period that elicited 3,000 responses, determined they could not open the roads.
After that, they released the final Record of Decision, which stated, among other things, that one reason the roads could not be open was based on the determination that the segment of the South Platte in question was eligible for designation as a scenic river.
In a statement following the decision, Trujillo wrote that she had considered “the wide range of perspectives presented by individuals and organizations who care deeply about the use and management of our public lands” and balanced those with her responsibilities to provide public access, manage for multiple uses, and protect America’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.
The science-based conservation group Wild Connections, which lobbied for the closure, applauded the decision.
But McKay says Pike-San Isabel “never considered opening Wildcat’s historic loops. They predetermined from the start: We’re going to fully decommission those roads. Bulldoze them. Reseed. That was the decision.”
McKay maintains that the Forest Service failed to properly consider the recreational value of the 12 total routes and failed to analyze other ways than closure to mitigate negative impacts while keeping them open (or in some cases reopening them from their current temporarily closed status) to motorized recreation.
He also believes the decision to close them was influenced “by a flawed agency scoring process that rated them as having low recreational value,” despite the fact most of the routes are highly popular, used regularly and have national recognition.
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“The Forest Service has even recognized the high recreational value of some of these routes in prior environmental analyses, yet they falsely deemed them as having low recreational value in this travel planning process,” McKay says.
The motorized community has always faced an uphill climb in acquiring trails and keeping them open, he adds.
“If you look at the overall picture of outdoor recreation in Colorado and the West on public lands, every other user group is constantly getting new mountain bike networks, new hiking trails, new campgrounds, expanding opportunities that match the expansion of the Western population,” McKay said. “But with motorized use, dating back to the 1970s when Nixon decided it was a problem and needed to be reduced, the motorized recreation community has only ever had lost opportunities.”
Next up, McKay says a U.S. attorney at the Justice Department will be assigned to defend the forest service, which will have to file a reply to the allegations in his complaint.