Backcountry horsemen at odds with ORV use in Shoshone National Forest

2012-01-18T00:00:00Z 2012-01-18T10:06:44Z Backcountry horsemen at odds with ORV use in Shoshone National ForestBy MARTIN KIDSTON Gazette Wyoming Bureau The Billings Gazette
January 18, 2012 12:00 am  • 

CODY, Wyo. — A group of backcountry horsemen voiced concern this week with a push by the Northwest Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance to expand motorized access in the Shoshone National Forest.

Equestrians brought their concerns to a Tuesday meeting with Park County commissioners, who in turn clarified a vote that they made last week regarding their support for the off-road vehicle group and its desire to see mechanized travel expanded on the Shoshone.

“Our action was to encourage the Forest Service, through this group, to consider alternative uses,” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf, who also is a member of the off-road vehicle group. “We want to make sure that is addressed by the Forest Service in this forest plan.”

The debate over expanded motorized use in the Shoshone began last Tuesday when commissioners voted to support the Northwest Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance and its goals to expand or redesignate roughly 94 miles of forest trail for off-road vehicle use.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to include the club’s goals in their official comments to the National Forest. The agency is accepting comments on its new forest plan until early next month.

In the days following their vote, however, commissioners received letters and phone calls from frustrated backcountry equestrians and other nonmotorized trail users, who called their vote premature and shortsighted.

Commissioners attempted to deflect some of that frustration Tuesday, saying their vote was not a vote in favor of expanded motorized trail use, but rather, it was intended to get the attention of the Forest Service regarding the importance of multiple uses.

“The reason I voted the way I did was to at least keep the door of communication open,” Commissioner Joe Tilden said. “This (forest plan) is the plan we’re going to be working on for the next 20 years. In no way was I saying we’d go out and build a new road, because that’s a long, drawn-out process.”

Nonmotorized trail users, including members of the Shoshone Back Country Horsemen, say the vote by commissioners to support the off-road vehicle club and its goals was made hastily and without input from other user groups.

“The county commissioners endorsed this proposal without even talking to other trail users,” said Barry Reiswig of Cody. “We’ve been riding those trials for 30 to 40 years, but apparently, we weren’t given any consideration.”

Reiswig said the areas proposed by the ORV group for expanded off-road travel cut through sensitive wildlife areas and cross steep terrain and erosive soils.

He and other equestrians believe the Bighorn Mountains already serve as a premier off-road vehicle destination and that the Shoshone should be managed instead as a backcountry forest.

“If you go into the Bighorns, there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of ORV trails on the forest,” Reiswig said. “If you’re an ORV user, that ought to be the forest for you. If you’re a backcountry trail user, the Shoshone should be the forest for you.”

Bruce Fauskee, a member of the backcountry horsemen from Powell, said his concerns range from noise to impacts on wildlife. Mixing horses and hikers with ATVs and motorcycles, he said, may also be dangerous.

“More than that, look what’s happened to the Bighorns and the forest around there,” Fauskee said. “You start opening the forest up to ATVs and stuff and pretty soon they’re everywhere. You can hardly go riding in the Bighorns anymore without running into an ATV.”

Fauskee noted a 2008 “preferences and values” study conducted by Colorado State University, which found that around 89 percent of Shoshone National Forest users favored nonmotorized recreation on the forest while 39 percent favored ATV use.

The study was commissioned by the Wyoming governor’s office. It surveyed 1,300 random households in Park, Fremont, Hot Springs and Teton counties.

“The commissioners need to look at what the study has shown,” Fauskee said. “Why are they in such a hurry? The Shoshone is one of those special places. Once you lose them, they’re gone.”

The ORV club’s proposal includes roughly 46 miles of expanded or redesignated trail in the Sunlight and Crandall area and about 48 miles in the Kirwin and Frank’s Peak area.

Dana Sanders, president of the NW Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance, said members of his club feel discriminated against when it comes to forest use. He said they don’t enjoy the same forest access as equestrians and hikers.

Commissioner Tim French agreed.

“A lot of people can go park a pickup and go on a walk or hike,” French said. “They have, I would guess, 99 percent of the forest at their access where the other users don’t. We could all use that forest. I think there’s room for everybody.”

Commissioner Dave Burke, who cast last week’s one dissenting vote, said that while the forest can accommodate a wide variety of uses, multiple-use doesn’t necessarily mean all things in all places.

By definition, Burke said, multiple-use means making efficient use of the land that’s available to the public.

“The idea that somebody is locked out of an area because it’s not motorized — I don’t buy that,” Burke said. “It doesn’t bother me that there are some mountains out there I’ll never climb. There are a lot of impacts here that need to be considered, not just to wildlife, but to other users of the forest.”

Commissioners agreed that the ultimate decision will lie with forest officials. If any trails or roads are expanded or redesignated for ORV use, it would involve a lengthy public process.

District Ranger Terry Root said existing wilderness, the grizzly bear conservation strategy and other wildlife issues would come into play.

“The implications are many and the process is lengthy,” Root said. “Is it worth considering? Absolutely.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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