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

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