Friday, October 28, 2011

Travel management and Pandora's box

I got in a bit of back-and-forth a few days ago with a couple of folks on the Elko Daily Free Press website regarding travel management. I've largely stayed quiet about the process in recent years, mostly because I thought it would negatively impact the work I was doing on the Secret-Lamoille Trail Project. Since I've been booted out of that project, though, I don't see a lot of point in staying quiet any more. What the hell - Pandora's box can hold some interesting stuff.

An off-the-top-of-my-head history of Travel Management

For those unfamiliar with the history of Travel Management, several years ago the Bush Administration directed public lands agencies to begin the process of changing travel rules on USFS and BLM lands from "open unless designated closed" to "closed unless designated open." This has the effect of limiting travel on routes in the Forest and on BLM lands to identified system roads, thus in theory stopping overland travel and the incredible resource damage said overland travel can cause.

Few who care about the condition of public lands can argue with the concept. All you have to do is head out to your nearest Forest or BLM land to see the incredible damage that careless motorized travel does every day. More and more people are out there riding, and the motors and tires get bigger every year. One little track from some guy testing his skills driving up or down a steep hill becomes a deeper and deeper track after other folks try and follow him, and after erosion starts taking place. Pretty soon those tracks become rocky gullies and scars on the hillside... so the next guy tries another hill a few feet over and the cycle of damage begins again. Those scars are visible from miles away and will never heal in this dry desert climate. These kinds of "pioneer trails" are rampant around here and are an amazing degradation from when I was growing up.

When the travel management process begins in a public lands district, the district staff does its best to inventory the existing roads, ATV tracks and trails. They look to the public for a lot of help on this because it's not physically possible for them to find everything... something's certain to be missed, and in so doing a good route would be closed to public use since it wouldn't end up on the finished maps. Once they have an inventory done, they go through it looking for routes that should stay open and routes that should be closed. Closure is usually recommended for one of three reasons:
Resource damage/unsustainable route - travel along the route is causing damage to the soils, fisheries, wildlife habitat, cultural sites, etc.

Duplicate routes - multiple routes accessing the same destinations.

Lack of access - routes are locked off from access due to lack of public easements through private property. In these cases, the roads' designation was changed to "administrative" in order to allow for use by permittees and to allow for future categorization as "open" should an access easement be arranged.

As part of the Environmental Impact Statement necessitated by this significant of a change in public lands use, four different alternatives are proposed for the new travel management rules, from "no change" (not possible under Federal law) through increasingly restrictive scenarios. Environmental and cultural studies are done on each of the proposed alternatives, and the public is invited to comment through a formalized "scoping" process. Based on the results of the studies and the public scoping, one of the alternatives is chosen as the most appropriate for that district and is modified based on findings during the process. A draft of the new rule is published for comment again and, after the public has had a chance to have its say one more time, the new rule is adopted and implemented. It's reviewed again in a year and into the future to see what's working and what isn't, and changes are made at that time.

An EIS is an open invitation to a lawsuit, and the likelihood is that the agency is going to get sued by a variety of parties after the rule is adopted. If the EIS is done well and if the agency can demonstrate that it used good science and good scoping policies to do its work, the lawsuit generally doesn't get very far. If the agency's work is slipshod, the lawsuit will drag on for years if not more. Your tax dollars at work - generally speaking, entities that sue the federal government get their legal fees paid by the taxpayers. Groups like Western Watershed Project pay themselves nice, fat salaries that way.

That's the basic concept of how travel management is supposed to work, and how it is working across the country.

Travel Management and the three local Ranger Districts

By and large, that's how the travel management process worked here, up to a point. The USFS conducted an inventory of routes and published very preliminary and incomplete maps in 2005, asking the public to fill in the gaps. The ONLY people who participated were members of the Gold Country ATV club, even though the USFS ran articles in the paper, got on the radio, held public meetings, sent out letters, begged people to get involved. The overwhelming sentiment was that people didn't want to participate - to spill the beans on their favorite routes - because the USFS would then just close the route. These people missed the entire point of travel management, because unless the routes were identified and categorized as open, then they were GUARANTEED by law to be closed.

Another big problem with trying to get the routes identified was that the maps were, frankly, awful. You literally couldn't tell by looking at them which road was which, where it went, or anything. They should have been topographic maps or satellite images, but instead were simple black lines (routes) on a white background. Utterly useless... even if a person WANTED to help the maps were so bad that they couldn't.

This went on for several years, with the USFS trying to get their maps to be more complete and the public largely ignoring them. Scoping came and went, and while a few people commented most people didn't really say much.

And then, after the public scoping period had come and gone, one of the local USFS "haters" got wind of the deal.

Oh, my, god, you'd have thought the USFS was trying to murder Santa Claus! The commissioners blew up. Members of Elko County Staff, on Elko County time, spent days and weeks attacking the USFS and the travel management plan. People screamed in the media, screamed in meetings, made all kinds of false statements and accusations. Much of it was politically motivated, and a few people now hold elective office here in large part because of the noise they made about travel management. What started out as a fairly orderly and necessary process turned into a national example of a process gone wrong.

Travel management has been extended for multiple years at this point at the request of the commissioners and other local politicians - demanding more and more public meetings, more and more opportunities to attack the USFS, more and more ways to drag things out. As things sit right now, they've chased the local ranger out of town (no tar and feathers, although I'm certain that they'd be applied if they could catch him). The Forest supervisor has had to put her foot down and refuse to extend the process any farther. Meetings at this point are accomplishing nothing - they're just more opportunity for local residents to abuse USFS staff. Said non-tarred-and-feathered ranger will sign the travel management document as likely his last act for the Ruby Mountain Ranger District before leaving this area forever. Don't let the door hit you in the ass.

How things could have - and should have - gone

Frankly, anybody with any kind of familiarity with this area could have seen this coming. There has long been a hugely antagonistic relationship between locals and the USFS, and given the history of belligerence and the emphasis on motorized recreation here, it was a given that this was going to be an explosive issue.

The USFS made it radically worse by publishing terrible maps, by terrible communication, and by not playing the politics well.
One of their very FIRST acts should have been approaching the commissioners looking for help and buy-in. In 2005, before this all went to hell, the commission had some very level-headed people on board who were more about problem-solving than putting on a big show. They didn't do it, though, and now they're reaping the seeds that they didn't sow.

Before publishing the EIS with its four alternatives, the USFS should have identified the reason behind each and every mile of proposed road closure, and identified what needed to happen in order to keep those stretches of road open. That would have given people productive ways of working to address problems. If the road/trail needed to be improved, if erosion control needed to be done, if access easements needed to be purchased and/or negotiated - those things can happen if people are given the opportunity to work on them. Just telling somebody *NO* is guaranteed to get peoples' hackles up.

We needed people at the USFS working on this project who were more familiar with the local area and local politics. Frankly, while Gar Abbas is a very nice man, he was the wrong man for this job. He wasn't local and didn't have the local connections and buy-in that was absolutely crucial to make this process work. In addition, he didn't enroll locals to help the USFS to engage the community more fully in the process. The USFS became more and more insular as things went on, which is an understandable reaction given all the abuse that was directed their way. It was, however, absolutely the worst thing they could have done.

The commissioners and the local agency haters haven't had a lot of reason to try and find constructive solutions to the problems caused by unregulated motorized travel, because they've been almost completely successful in derailing the process. Ultimately, though, they're playing a losing hand. Whether they like it or not, Travel Management is the law of the land and is going to happen one way or another. It's earning them all kinds of political points now, but it isn't doing a damned thing to resolve the underlying issue, which is public lands access.
They need to decide to work WITH the USFS, rather than against them. There are common goals out there - the USFS wants increased public access, too, believe it or not. Be leaders - find commonalities and build on them, rather than just launching attack after attack. That just wastes tax dollars, both at the local and federal level.

Find out what can be done to minimize the REASONS for road closures. There are tools that the commissioners have been reluctant to use that would guarantee access into the future - for example, changing planning and zoning rules to require that subdividers provide a public access easement whenever they're dividing property adjacent to public lands. Using RS2477 to establish public access easements on established roads that have been used for access for years. Write grants to purchase public access easements from property owners. Develop a local volunteer corps to do road improvements, erosion control, etc. The list goes on.

There's not a lot of possibility that any kind of real leadership on this issue is going to come out of the Elko County political class. They're winning elections based on their public posturing, so why change? The agency haters are in full cry and will be satisfied with nothing less than the complete departure of any and all Federal agency presence in this part of the country. It'll never happen, but it keeps them busy and earns them business from the other haters in town. Nice little closed (and closed minded) loop. No solutions, no progress, nothing but a lot of hate and wasted energy.

I can always dream that we'll see level-headed, creative, problem-solvers on the Commission again, but the haterade runs deep in Elko County and anybody who emphasizes solutions rather than belligerence doesn't have a chance in hell of being elected here. I can always dream that we'll get a new ranger that has a clue how to work with the locals, but there's not a lot of hope that anybody with any talent is going to want to come to Elko County. This is the place where agency careers come to die. It's a downward spiral that I have little reason to believe will stop any time soon.

Sorry to be so gloomy - time to go walk around in the Rubies and forget about "travel management" for a while.


  1. Very perceptive. Local politics is dominated by swagger ignorance and short term self-interest. At least the USFS may be able to conserve something intact of the local natural environment for future generations.

  2. Dan Dallas was pretty good but he left for "greener pastures" and the likes of him are few and far between.

  3. Yeah, travel management would have looked a lot different had he still been at the helm. He "got it" here, and the local politicians respected him. They could have worked things out.