Land, Water and People: The challenge of managing a travel system


My friend was totally beside herself as she told me about an encounter with some fellow ATVers. She and some friends were riding their ATVs on one of the many motorized trails on the Rio Grande National Forest when they came across a few other visitors who had stopped along the trail after riding across a pristine alpine meadow. My friend, not known for being shy, called the riders out on their behavior and one of the men said, “This is the national forest, we can ride anywhere we want.”

I think most people reading this column know people can’t ride their motorized vehicles anywhere they want on the national forest. There are a variety of reasons for this, of course, ranging from the impacts of unregulated use on natural and cultural resources and wildlife to the need for sharing the public lands with a diversity of users.

The current road and trail system authorized for public use on the Rio Grande National Forest was not determined in a vacuum. In 1996, as part of the forest plan revision process, the Forest created a travel management plan (note: travel management planning will occur following the current forest plan revision process). This plan was developed with a lot of public input, but no one got everything they wanted, because there were laws and a lot of different values that led to the final plan.

The Forest put out a travel map following the publication of 1996 travel plan. Some of you may remember those early maps; the entire Forest was put on one black and white map showing all the roads and trails authorized for public use. My eyes are squinting just thinking about how hard it was to read the tiny details on those maps.

Then, in 2008, the Forest published Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) for each ranger district. The maps are free and can be picked up at any Rio Grande National Forest office and are posted on the Forest’s website.

The scale of the MVUMs is such that one doesn’t have to squint to read them, but they don’t have a lot of geographic detail. In other words, sometimes it is difficult to know exactly where you are, thus the maps work best when paired with maps that show more of the on-the-ground geography.

The MVUMs were designed to help people understand which roads and trails are authorized for motorized use. Most people want to “be legal” when they are out enjoying their national forest and these maps are designed to help people do just that. Unfortunately, some people don’t care. In those cases, our law enforcement folks use the MVUMs as legal documents, as they stand up in a court of law.

Not long ago I spoke to a gentleman on the phone who complained we physically closed a road he had been using “all his life.” After figuring out what road he was talking about, I informed him it was not part of the authorized forest road system. He then asked how come it wasn’t signed closed all along.

There are many parts to answering that good question, but I’ll just provide two here due to space: The Forest doesn’t have the capacity to put up closed signs on every unauthorized road and trail. Additionally, road/trail closed signs have a way of disappearing within weeks after being put up, so the policy is that roads and trails are closed unless signed open with a road or trail number. This isn’t new. The Rio Grande National Forest has been operating this way for more than three decades (remember the white arrow program?).

Year in and year out, travel management is our most challenging issue. Some people struggle to operate within a structured travel system, but it is the only reasonable way to find a balance between protecting the environment and providing access and recreational opportunities for the 325 million owners of the national forest.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.