A battle for turf on a flat-top mountain

  GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - The aspen and conifer forests that cover most of Grand Mesa just east of here look peaceful from a distance. But up on top of the world's largest flat-top mountain, recreational vehicle drivers are engaged in a protracted war with other forest visitors. It's feet vs. machines.


Hikers, skiers, hunters and anglers say all-terrain vehicle (ATV) users and snowmobilers noisily invade more and more of the 368,000-acre forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The result is frightened wildlife, trampled wetlands, eroded trails and frayed tempers.


"On any sunny summer afternoon, there are more people on Grand Mesa than lived in the entire Grand Valley 101 years ago," says Forest Service staffer Matt Glasgow. "It is only reasonable and right that we do something to ensure that there is a national forest 100 years from now."


ATV users say plans by the agency to restrict where they can go are unfair and out of proportion to their impact on the forest. To address the situation, the Forest Service has proposed closing 2,600 additional acres of the forest to motorized vehicles and restricting their use on remaining land to designated trails and roads. The travel management plan also bars ATV drivers and snowmobilers from 31 lakes and reservoirs.


The proposal replaces a less restrictive one put forward in 1990 by then Forest Supervisor Richard Greffenius. That plan generated enormous outcry from ATV groups, including seven appeals. After Greffenius' departure the following year, Grand Mesa's new supervisor, Robert Storch, withdrew the plan and started over, this time with a nine-member advisory committee composed of concerned users of the forest.


Hunters, anglers, motorized vehicle users, environmentalists, ranchers, resort owners and water users, as well state and federal officials, met for a year, then helped draft a 38-page revised environmental assessment in December 1992. The committee reached remarkable consensus, with the lone exception of the motorized vehicle representative.


"Everybody was basically in tune with the fact that something had to be done to help preserve the ecology and the environment," says outfitter Jack Lowe, who represented hunters on the committee. "The only one we couldn't get together was motorized (vehicle users)."


John Martin, the motorized vehicle representative who often cast the sole dissenting vote, says the preferred plan, called Alternative 3, is based on a false perception. "Motorized vehicle use isn't as large a problem as Alternative 3 is trying to make it out to be," he says. Martin believes the Forest Service would better solve the problem of environmental damage caused by motorized vehicles by posting signs and printing more accurate maps.


"We didn't come up with something perfect," says Scott Kenton of the environmental group Western Colorado Congress. "But in the spirit of compromise and in the spirit of trying to really plan for the forest, we can live with it."


Hunting spokesman Lowe agrees. "There's a place for ATV users and they have the absolute right to be certain places. But they don't have the right to be everywhere."


If the Forest Service pushes ahead with Alternative 3, the agency faces the daunting task of enforcing it. Forest users of all stripes admit that closing certain areas now used by motorized recreationists could cause outright rebellion. And the Forest Service doesn't have the resources to effectively monitor the whole forest.


"The plan has to be accepted by the public," says Kim Kokesh, president of Thunder Mountain Four Wheelers. "If not, they're just pissing in the wind."


With such strong opposition from motorized vehicle groups, passage of Alternative 3 is uncertain. Many believe they will be able to force the Forest Service to back down on its plan.


But they will have to do it without the support of traditional allies. Both local ranchers and Club 20, a Western Slope business promotion group, have agreed to a modified version of the plan. The ranchers and Club 20 support restricting ATVs to trails, but think Alternative 3 closes too many trails and lakes.


Supervisor Storch says that he also backs Alternative 3, but admits that the plan will probably be altered before taking effect. Storch says he will announce his final decision no later than April 1, when it will again face public scrutiny before being implemented in June.


But for Storch, Grand Mesa is only the first battle. Beginning next year, he intends to draft new travel management plans for the adjacent Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, again using advisory committees. Unlike the Grand Mesa plan, however, Storch says that travel in these forests will be decided by committees open to anyone interested in the forests.


In the midst of these battles, the one thing that motorized and non-motorized interests agree on is that similar struggles will occur around the nation. "I think this is just the beginning," says Storch. "As the population increases, there's going to be greater demands on federal lands, especially national forests, because of the values they have. This is a sign of the times."


For more information about the Travel Management Plan for the Grand Mesa National Forest, contact Matt Glasgow of the U.S. Forest Service, 2250 Highway 50, Delta, CO 81416 (303/874-7691).





* Todd Hinnen, David Frey





The reporters are former HCN interns.