Travel planning theatrics


A couple weeks ago, I attended a public comment and informational forum in Delta, Colo. The meeting concerned billionaire William Koch's proposed land swap with the federal government. The deal would help the wealthy recluse consolidate and expand Bear Ranch, his "private family retreat," by giving him the federal lands that currently divide his parcel. The ranch is set in a particularly scenic section of the Ragged Mountain range in western Colorado.

Currently, Koch's ranch is split by a slim Bureau of Land Management parcel.  That parcel contains a public access road into the Gunnison National Forest. In return for eliminating this forest access, and gaining a few other parcels in the same area (totaling about 1800 acres), Koch is offering the federal government a pair of private inholdings he owns that would slightly expand and consolidate two National Park Service areas, in northwest Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument and Curecanti National Recreation Area, near Gunnison. He'll also throw in some new trail accesses that mostly benefit ATVers and mountain bikers.

While the details of the proposal are somewhat complicated, disagreement on the swap basically comes down to the standard division of interests: those pleased with Koch’s offer, because it benefits motorized and bicycle users, and those against, primarily quiet users who are satisfied with existing access, or those philosophically opposed to a swap benefiting a wealthy landowner at the expense of public lands.

As a quiet user myself, I derive outdoor enjoyment from moving, under my own steam, through hushed scenic trails that aren't littered with Natty Lite cans and Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage boxes. In that sense, I sympathize with Delta County's quiet users, who stand to lose a popular non-motorized public trail access in the Bear Ranch bargain. But, as a temporary transplant to the area, I'm not particularly invested in the outcome.  I was, however, interested in observing the political theater that is the public process. The meeting I attended, which was packed to bursting, was civil-ish but steeped in the expected rhetoric. Supporters from each side tried to strengthen their positions by adopting the opposing sides’ terms and catchwords. The relatively conservative ATV set repeatedly used the phrase "good steward of the land" to describe Koch, while the hiking set -- traditionally liberal group -- talked about keeping government small and land management local.

At it's most heated, the Delta forum reminded me of a Forest Service travel plan session I attended in Montana. That meeting basically disintegrated into a cacophony of cross-table shouting matches between ATVers, who demanded equal public lands access for their poster child of choice -- the crippled, elderly war patriot who can no longer get into the mountains on foot -- versus quiet users who insisted that just because they can hike a motorized trail, doesn't mean they want or should have to. There is a reason streets have sidewalks, after all. But, the Montana ATV coalition was far better organized, kept cooler heads and, in the end, got exactly what they wanted: the opening of hiking-only trails to motorized users.

In Delta, the details were different, but the players the same. Those in favor of the ATV-friendly land swap spoke clearly and calmly. They were well organized and lovably countrified. Their criticisms of the other side often came off as honest and thoughtful, even when they were not. One woman -- an adjacent landowner to Koch and an ATV user -- spuriously compared quiet users' frustrations at having to share trails with ATVs to a person requesting a separate room because someone in front of them farted. This oversimplification doesn't make a lick of sense, but the woman said it with such confident, folksy charm I couldn't help but chuckle.

Meanwhile, the quiet users and those politically opposed to the exchange were, with a few exceptions, disorganized, sullen, and often painfully awkward in their delivery and message. One woman got up and basically said she didn't really care about the exchange at all, just "hated development" in general. That didn't help the quiet users' cause. Another disgruntled hiker actually had some good points, but they were hard to pick out through her jumbled irate mumbling. She spat the phrase "spectacular views" over and over at the group with the venom of a jilted lover.

The problem with these types of meetings and with travel planning in general is that quiet users will always be on the defensive because, other than no use at all, hiking and walking are the baseline "uses" from which all other travel uses spring. With quiet users always on the de facto defensive, Motorized users, are free to adopt a fuzzy-wuzzy, "Why can't we all just get along?" attitude, knowing full well that, for them, sharing a trail with a group of hikers lessens their experience a hell of a lot less than it does the hikers'.

For me, the meeting's takeaway was that travel planning of any kind is pointless if federal agencies and land users refuse to consider the nuances that separate user priorities. In other words, what hikers want from their outdoor experience is -- let's be honest -- vastly different from what off-roaders, and even mountain bikers, are after when they journey into the woods. 

As the Delta meeting suggested, quiet users could do more to help themselves out in these types of meetings. But, in their defense, the meetings seem designed to pit user groups against each other rather than consider and accommodate for the needs of each. Until that happens, quiet users will continue to be cast as the travel planning bad guys, shrilly defending the value of quiet recreation ad nauseam, while ATVers get to motor into the sunset as the easy-going, sensible recreators.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

Images courtesy flickr users Brokentaco and familymwr

jackie wheeler
jackie wheeler Subscriber
Dec 01, 2011 01:20 PM
Thanks, Ms. Kirst, for this fair-minded article. As a "quiet user" (hiking, rafting, horseback riding), I'm always racking my brain over this issue. As with every recreational activity, the problem is not with the civil, responsible participants ("quiet" and "loud" alike), but with the obnoxious, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way scofflaws of whom there are far too many. Policing them eats up resources and limits access for everyone. We need somehow to develop not just laws and regulations but a land ethic that shames these yahoos into behaving. Pie in the sky I know, but it's working (mostly) with such issues as seat-belts and recycling.

Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Dec 01, 2011 02:30 PM
Federal and State land management agencies are lying to themselves if they think they can accomodate all uses on all lands. Multiple-use doesn't mean all uses are compatible. Why is this so hard for the USFS and BLM to understand?
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 01, 2011 03:37 PM
Thank you for the informative article, I guess. I never know how to take these land swaps, I wish now I knew less about this one. I hate to see land locked up as Wilderness Area, but often it seems the only sure fire way of ensuring a place for quiet users.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Dec 01, 2011 03:45 PM
To Andrew: Federal land mgmt. agencies do not pretend that balancing the demands of a variety of stakeholders is an easy task. In fact since the begining days of the USFS Gifford Pinchot (the agencies first Chief Forester) noted that this was the Forest Service's primary task. Pinchot, in regards to stakeholder conflict, said the following, "where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run”. Simply put, the greatest good being the preservation or conservation of the land, which is to be enjoyed over the long run for generations to come. For over 100 years the USFS has largely held true to Pinchot's and Teddy Roosevelt's vision (minus some periods in the 1970s and 80s when logging and clear-cutting became out of hand). Unfortunatly, the USFS suffers due to it being a government agency, and like any government agency it will always fight a losing battle against the public as it takes fire from all sides and will forever be "damned if it does and damned if it dont". Granted the USFS has made some mistakes, and I like many others understand the fight against motorized vehicles and maintaining quiet, prestine, "wild" places. However, we cant always have our cake and eat it too, we have plenty of designated wilderness areas (with the USFS, Park Service, and BLM) where nothing is allowed except hiking and horseback riding. So, naturally, there must be areas where other forms of recreation are also allowed---regardless of your views toward them and the people who participate in them. That is how a democracy operates, you give some, and you take some. This is very well understood by the federal land mgmt. agencies. Question: would you rather not have public lands? Would you rather have the west look like the east and deny you the access to some of Earth's most wonderful places as it becomes private--off limits---land? I would hope not, and for this reason you should support (albeit while keeping a close eye on them)federal public lands and the agencies who manage them.
TJ Broom
TJ Broom
Dec 02, 2011 10:30 AM
The one sided user conflict between motorized and nonmotorized users is well documented in the scientific literature and know to recreation planners. For example, here is one of the classics from the eairly 80s[…]/01490408209512989 .
Adam Crane Guilford
Adam Crane Guilford Subscriber
Dec 02, 2011 10:46 AM
I have been through this area the last two summers. The Ragged Mountains are a unique area that I was hoping to be able to explore further. Mr Koch would do well to learn how to get along with others, since we (the people) own the land between his property and the Raggeds, as well as the access through his land. Just because a person is well connected and in possession of a large fortune does not mean that he should receive special preference. From what I understand, the parcels he is offering in return are smaller and less desirable than the ones he is asking for in return. He wants to have a private replica of an "Old West" town. That is a selfish and frivolous reason to cut off the access to this beautiful area to all his fellow citizens. This whole episode is symptomatic of how our Government so often ignores what is best for the vast majority of citizens to serve the childish whims of the wealthy and well connected. I do hope the Forest Service does not cave into this man's demands
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Dec 02, 2011 12:00 PM
Adam, it's not a matter of the USFS caving--this deal is out of their hands (and Interior's), because Koch has engineered a swap that can't be done administratively, only through Congress. He purchased trade land both across state lines and involving more than one government department (USDA and Interior), the only two circumstances under which a land exchange has to be done through legislation. This means that you've got no public process through the agecnies (NEPA), but instead public meetings called by either the trade facilitator or a group of county commissioners who don't have jurisdiction. If legislation for the exchange is introduced and given a hearing in D.C., Koch and his lobbyists are going to have a hell of a lot more time bending Members' ears than will any opponents from the 99%. I think that equation may be part of what inspires the sputtering. Also, Marian, I believe it's a slight misstatement to say the BLM land divides Koch's parcel--it goes between two parcels and he wants to make all three one.
Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Dec 05, 2011 10:41 AM
Motorized recreation is for the most part incompatible with hiking, biking or horseback riding. Federal land users who wish to be absent from the loud noise of motors shouldn't have to be restricted to only wilderness areas which for the most part are high elevation or other areas with restricted access. There should be non-motorized use sites throughout the federal lands system.

More noise level, source and frequency monitoring needs to be done along with the subsequent identification of areas that would be relatively quiet without motorized access routes on federal lands. Areas should be identified as potential non-motorized management zones. Not just current wilderness areas, but other areas that are relatively free of traffic or industrial noise.
Adam Crane Guilford
Adam Crane Guilford Subscriber
Dec 06, 2011 02:12 PM
Thank You for updating me Janine. I now hope that Congress doesn't allow this to happen. But you are right, his lobbyists are much more likely to be listened to in Washington. Any suggestions on how we can thwart his plans ?
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Dec 06, 2011 02:23 PM
Adam, if you are a voter in CO, contact your delegation and tell them none of them should sponsor a bill for this land trade, should one be brought to them, or should they be asked to write such legislation!
Marian Lyman Kirst
Marian Lyman Kirst Subscriber
Dec 06, 2011 02:59 PM
Janine and Adam,
Thank you very much for your comments and continued discussion of this issue. If you are in the area and are interested, there is a Town Hall meeting in Paonia,CO on Wednesday, January 11th at 7:00 pm.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Dec 06, 2011 03:11 PM
I'm in Seattle (Western Lands Project), so I can't make that, but we'll be following this deal as far as it goes!
Adam Crane Guilford
Adam Crane Guilford Subscriber
Dec 09, 2011 11:54 AM
Thank You for the invite, but I avoid traversing the state in the Winter. However I will be in contact with my Senators and Congressman