By KAY MATTHEWS
The promulgation of Travel Management Plans for northern New Mexico’s Carson and Santa Fe national forests ended with a whimper, not a bang: the Carson National Forest Supervisor “opted to not consider any changes to the existing designated motorized trails on the Camino Real R[anger] D[istrict] during this travel management NEPA process.” In other words, the agency chose to duck potential appeals and lawsuits by maintaining the status quo.
The Travel Management Rule (TMR) of 2005 provides a framework that each national forest and grassland uses to designate a system of roads, trails, and areas for motor vehicle use. Carson National Forest held public meetings across the forest in 2006 and 2007, and also met with grazing permittees, sportsman organizations, and one on one with forest users to solicit input to designate routes on the forest in accordance with the TMR. A USFS spokesperson told me that the Preliminary Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Camino Real took so long to formulate because the district contains the most number of trails and roads on the Carson—and because of the contention regarding their use: intense lobbying from Off Road Vehicle (ORV) interest groups for more access; locals concerned about access for traditional uses such as firewood gathering; and environmentalists who would like to see more road closures to protect resources.
The agency had plenty of time to factor in responses to the other district plans as well as the controversy over the Santa Fe National Forest travel management plan that was just appealed by an ORV interest group a few weeks ago. It could have released a plan that thoroughly analyzed resource condition, social need, environmental consequence, and economic impact and made a recommendation that best synthesized these factors. Or it could have released a plan that purposely avoided all of these analyses and took the road already traveled. Which is exactly what it did.
As La Jicarita editor David Correia noted in his article about the Santa Fe National Forest Travel Management Plan , maybe at this stage of the game “nothing” is the best the agency can do: it can’t enforce the rules it currently has, so how can it enforce a new set of rules that might change use designations but not the “use” itself?
The agency can also use the “analysis paralysis” defense—the time it takes to actually implement on-the-ground-projects because of the cumbersome NEPA process that allows for administrative appeals and lawsuits: Why bother spending six years writing a preliminary EA if the ORV lobby is going to sue the agency if it closes any roads to motorized use or WildEarth Guardians will sue it for failing to close them?
So what’s actually in the Camino Real 165 page EA? Well, the district proposes to prohibit cross-country (off road) travel, which has been the rule on several other districts for years and is now required by the TMR on the entire forest. Otherwise, the EA proposes to restrict a few miles of roads to administrative use; remove a few existing 300-foot corridors (areas alongside roads where people can camp and gather firewood); impose a district-wide seasonal closure in the winter and early spring); and convert one road to a motorized trail. That’s it, the sum total of the proposed action in this EA that’s been in the works since 2006.
Back in the mid 1990s, a watershed coalition group made a formal proposal to the Camino Real, then as now struggling to deal with the demands of ORV use, that the heavily roaded area of the district on the north side of SH 518, the highway to Mora, be designated as motorized, and the south side of SH 518, adjacent to the Pecos Wilderness, be designated non-motorized and set aside for hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing. Believe it or not, the district actually took this recommendation seriously, and held a few meetings and field trips with those interested in the proposition.
The current EA initially drafted an alternative that considered converting many of the motorized trails on the south side of 518 to non-motorized use while replacing “the same number of miles of motorized trails in another location.”
But then, as now, Sipapu Ski Area and Summer Resort cried foul and the USFS backed down. The motorized trails on the south side of 518 are heavily promoted and used by the resort for summertime use. According to the EA, “Sipapu Ski Area and Summer Resort generates a significant amount of summer business by promoting motorized recreation on the nearby Carson NF. The resort provides maps and information about local roads and trails. Proposing to designate motor vehicle use on roads, trails, and within corridors for specific purposes may substantially restrict where visitors can go on the forest and result in a less enjoyable recreational experience. A diminished experience may affect whether a visitor returns to the resort in the future.”
The Camino Real EA makes perfect sense: maintain the status quo, enable private industry at the expense of environmental and social concerns, and prevent lawsuits.