Shoshone Forest seeks input on travel plan

CODY — The Shoshone National Forest has released a travel management plan that could close popular snowmobiling areas and transition many roads to trails.

Three main plans were designed for the public to weigh in on. The public will have until Sept. 28 to submit comments. This comment period extended 30 days in August.

“The comments you give us now … will help us draft that final environmental assessment and will help inform our final decision that will be made by the forest supervisor,” said Sue Eickhoff, former district ranger for the Wapiti District. Eickhoff is now forest supervisor for the Ashley National Forest in southwest Wyoming.

Three different plan options were developed for the north zone of the Shoshone National Forest. A total of 200 different proposals were considered for wheeled-vehicle use and 32 considered for snow use in the Shoshone National Forest.

Some of the changes appear only slight on the surface but could lead to elimination or addition of activities.

Alternative 2 proposes to convert many forest roads to trails open to all wheeled vehicles, while Alternative 3 proposes to convert the same roads to trails, most open only to wheeled vehicles 64-inches wide or less.

Alternative 1 continues the status quo. Currently there are 882 miles of forest service roads and 36 miles of summer motorized trails (non-over snow vehicle use). There are 349 miles of roads for summer motorized travel and 184 miles of roads have seasonal closures in the north zone of the forest, which contains the Clarks Fork, Greybull and Wapiti ranger districts. No summer motorized trails currently exist in the north zone.

Alternative 2 stems from public comments made in 2015 and 2016, and Alternative 3 offers changes in response to a Nov. 2017 public meeting.

Both Alternative 2 and 3 would increase seasonal trail restrictions, with Alternative 2 putting some form of restrictions on 80% of all trails, up from the current 27%.

Alternative 2 would decrease system roads by 16% and increase trails by 449%, resulting in a small increase in total routes. In the north zone, this would include an addition of 6 miles of small spur roads to allow legal access to dispersed campsites. Mark Foster, forest environmental coordinator, said most of the road changes will be occurring in the Washakie and Wind River districts.

It would reduce to 338 miles of summer motorized roads in the north zone. From this total, 13 more miles would face seasonal closures. A total of 4 miles of road would be decommissioned and 10 miles of new summer motorized trails would be added.

“To address loop and youth riding opportunities that (the public) brought forward a couple years ago,” Eickhoff said.

Joy Bannon, policy director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said her organization is analyzing the plan and takes into strong consideration any road changes that could affect fish and wildlife, with a specific focus on impacts to migration corridors and hunters.

“Looking at whether there are more concerns with particular streams, trails becoming more like a road,” she said.

She said the WWF supports motorized access on existing roads and trails as it generally benefits hunters. Her organization determines the benefits of new access on a case-by-case basis.

A total of 139 miles of roads would be converted to trails for all vehicles, while 3.45 miles of these would be restricted to vehicles with wheelbases 64 inches wide or less – generally ATVs and snowmobiles.

Foster said when a road is converted to a trail it receives less maintenance, but otherwise stays the same. He said these decisions were made as a result of fiscal feasibility rather than traffic volumes, and removing these costs saves the Forest Service money, allowing it to collaborate with other entities like Wyoming State Parks and Trails, and apply for grants for surface upkeep.

Liz Rose, Wyoming field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, has concerns the travel management plan is dependent on nothing more than fiscal concerns for the decisions being considered, and is putting too much dependence on outside organizations for help. She also expressed disappointment there were no plans set for improved signage or enforcement efforts.

“It just seems there wasn’t as thorough of analysis as to the impacts to wetlands and riparian areas,” she said. “It just seems it’s setting up for a bunch of executive orders.”

Bannon said traditionally when a road becomes a trail, it reduces travel and positively impacts wildlife.

Alternative 3 would decrease roads by 18% and increase trails by 440%, resulting in a .17% decrease in total routes. In the north zone, this plan would add 19 miles of motorized trails but reduce system roads by 26 miles, and only add 3 miles of spurs, with 3 miles of roads decommissioned.

Alternatives 2 and 3 would both decrease total road maintenance.

Under Alternative 2, The Forest Service will take steps to recognize an official over-snow vehicle use season for the north zone of the forest, which would run from Nov. 1-May 31. This range was determined through the use of 16 years of historical data. FS staff would retain the right to adjust open and close dates.

“The Forest believes this approach will provide opportunities for over-snow vehicle use recreation while protecting forest resources,” the assessment states.

Bert Miller, president of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association, said they would like to see the ending of this season range pushed back 15-30 days into June, as there are high altitude locales off the Beartooth Highway that hold substantial depths of snow through the end of July on high moisture years. He cautions against becoming too reliant on historical numbers for openings and closures as real-time snow levels can vary widely at almost any time.

Currently, there are 27 miles of groomed OSV trails and 31 miles ungroomed over 266 square miles.

Alternative 3 does not identify open and closure dates, but would rely on special orders and the personal responsibility of Forest users to make the correct decisions as far as the timing of their OSV use.

Under Alternative 2, there would be 10.12 miles of new, OSV ungroomed routes added, while Alternative 3 would offer no change.

This route would run from the Clarks Fork Canyon Trailhead near the Painter Outpost, north along Ghost Creek to the Beartooth Highway.

“We’re very excited to have the possibility of that,” Miller said. “It allows when people come snowmobiling, to drop into the store for a meal or gas.”

No new groomed trails would be added under Alternative 2 and total over-snow use would not be reduced.

Both of those plans reduce the total area open to OSV travel, by 1,354 acres in Alternative 2 and 10,528 acres in Alternative 3. Of those Alternative 3 reduced acres, 9,175 acres would be closed off to OSV in the High Lakes Wilderness Study area to prevent user conflicts, and 1,350 acres would be closed to OSV use in the Wind River District to allow for cross-country skiing dedicated areas.

Alternative 2 would only dedicate the 1,350 Wind River acres for Nordic skiing but would not contain the High Lakes closure.

Miller said the Alternative 3 closure would remove about 2/3 of the terrain from the north side of the Beartooth Highway for motorized use. He disputes that there are user conflicts in this zone and finds the wildlife presence during the winter months, when snow depths can scale well over seven feet, to be minimal. Bannon said most species are typically found at lower snow levels during the winter out of need for vegetation to sustain their diet.

Rose said she would have liked more consideration for addressing and management of conflict areas in the plan.

“That’s the purpose of travel management planning in that it does allow for multi-use and does avoid conflict,” she said.

The High Lakes closure has been a topic of major contention in Park County for quite some time.

In 2015, Wyoming Public Lands Initiative committees were set up across the state for constituents to weigh in on what uses they would like to see allowed in wilderness study areas. No consensus was reached among the local WPLI on whether to increase multi-purpose use or increase wilderness for the High Lakes.

The Park County commissioners chose to abandon the WPLI framework in favor of federal legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney that would have dropped the WSA designation and increased vehicle use in the areas.

There are 882 miles of public roads in the 2.4 million acre forest, and 522,000 acres of land are open to OSV.

“Which is a little unfair,” Miller said. “We believe there should be more opportunity for that to be properly managed.”

Miller said his organization supports elements of Alternatives 1 and 2 but does not support any part of Alternative 3, although CCSA does not support full-sized tracked vehicles being given ungroomed access.

“We are 100% in favor of keeping the High Lakes open for snowmobiling,” he said.

Foster said only about 20% of the SNF has potential for motorized vehicle use.

“The geography is unbelievable,” Foster said. “It really makes a significant limitation on where roads can go, where trails can go.”

Alternative 2 would add 27 miles of tracked ATV use on ungroomed snowmobile trails, 22 being in the Clarks Fork. Alternative 3 would add 20 miles, all in the Clarks Fork. If either of these are initiated an amendment to the Forest Plan may need to occur.

“We shared with you our proposals for travel management in a series of public meetings and field trips, said Eickhoff. “We sought your input so that we could develop alternatives that respond to the need for public access while also managing motorized travel in a responsible way.”

According to the Forest Service, public input has largely driven the development of these proposals, beginning with comments received during the Forest Plan revision, followed by comments received from the initial scoping effort in May of 2016, with additional comments received through the 2017 scoping of the modified proposed action provided the Forest Service with supplemental information that led to the currently proposed action alternatives.

But Rose said many comments were still not considered in the proposed plan.

“It feels like wasted time,” she said.