NV BHA Comments on Draft Travel Management Plan

To: Thomas Montoya
District Ranger
Mountain City Ranger District
Humboldt – Toiyabe National Forest


Gar Abbas
District Ranger
Ruby Mountains and Jarbidge Ranger Districts
Humboldt – Toiyabe National Forest

[email protected]

Please refer to our February 2009 and July 2010 TM comment letters letters for a description of our organization. Those letters are also emailed again at this time for your convenience.

Following are our comments to your Travel Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS):

General Comments:

We are pleased to note the Draft makes it clear that motor-focused recreationists are very much in the minority. However, it also needs to make it clear that ORV- focused use requires far more financial resources to manage per visitor day than non-motor. In addition, it should also be noted that off-road vehicle (ORV) recreation negatively impacts far more activities and resources than other forms of recreation.

We see flawed reasoning in several places saying the benefits from closing all lands to off-route travel makes it OK to legitimize renegade routes. The impacts of each route being added to the Forest Transportation Plan (FTS) must be analyzed for unacceptable impacts.

It seems clear that the Elko public considers any road closures are a takings of something they have rights to. It should be made clear to the public that the FS was ordered to implement motor vehicle management more than 30 years ago. Unregulated but seriously damaging use occurred because the Forest Service (FS) has neglected its duty. The public never really had the right to travel unrestricted anywhere. The fact is that it has never been “legal” to commit unplanned or unauthorized creation of new vehicle routes or land damage during recreation activities. Off-road travel cannot happen in most instances without damage occurring.

Failure to enforce regulations prohibiting an activity does not make that activity “legal”. The EIS repeatedly states that off-road travel has been “legal” over much of the District in the past. This is statement is misleading and cannot help but make your job more difficult.

The DEIS uses flawed reasoning throughout that damage is already done, therefore consideration of future damage is not necessary. This is illogical and leads to poor decisions. For example: page 23 states that “This project only proposes to add routes currently in use to the FTS; therefore no new environmental effects will result from the project.“

Such rationalization shortcuts the imperative to describe the effects of existing use on wildlife, quiet recreation, hunter opportunity, land, etc. Full display of existing effects is essential for sufficient impact analysis of designating the road in question or the benefits of not legitimizing the route.

Unauthorized routes not added to the FTS will likely de-compact and revegetate, thus restoring the effects of the unauthorized use. A damaging use allowed to continue cannot be free of new environmental effects from the decision date forward. Full impact analysis of future effects not avoided must be completed for unauthorized routes added to FTS.

The DEIS fails to do any “opportunity cost” analysis. Total length of open routes provides little useful information. The question must always be asked: are there particular routes, or groups of routes, by which closing could provide significant benefits? A decision to by-pass such opportunity must be considered a cost of that decision.

We note accurate descriptions of effects of motorized recreation on non-motorized recreation, wildlife, non-motorized hunting, Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized (SPNM) opportunity. Yet these impacts do not seem to be factored into the alternatives.

We question the validity of SPNM classification for areas only ½ mile from a road in open areas with limited tree cover. This describes much of the NF covered by this project.

The DEIS display of acres accessible on foot within one mile and ½ mile of a road begs this question: how much and where will there be areas free from motor activity? A display of acreages, by alternative, that will be 2 miles from a motor route and acreages 1 mile from a motor route will answer this important question.

Table 3 on page 26 makes the flat statement that none of the alternatives will affect the “ability of Forest users to participate in Forest activities.” This is an erroneous statement. Even dedicated ORVers will have their activities curtailed by every alternative. Future non-motorized users will also be affected by most any unauthorized route of length added to FTS, as motorized use displaces non-motorized use.

A statement on page 31 says: ”Specific routes that may cause effects are discussed individually so the public and the Forest Service can consider any trade-offs associated with the addition of these routes”. Of course most any route has significant effects of one kind or another. There are few developments on NF lands that have the extensive environmental effects that motor routes do. Displaying specific route impacts is a very good approach. However, we do not find any display of specific route impacts in the DEIS. There are displays of total route lengths in various habitats, but there is no trade off analysis of individual routes

The EIS displays statistics showing motorized recreationists are very much the minority of recreationists. It must also be made it clear that no other recreation use requires the level of administrative and enforcement expense, signing expense, land damage repair, or occupy a disproportionate amount of space for one days' outing. ORV recreationists typically need 50 to 100 miles for a days' recreation, spreading noise, dust and disrupting other users and wildlife along the way.

On page 38 is the statement: “Existing NFS roads provide many quality loop opportunities, routes of varying degrees of difficulty, and diverse opportunities for scenic four-wheel drives.” These two stated facts make a very strong case for a minimum addition of unauthorized routes to the existing FTS.

We do support the concept of adding short spurs for motor access to undeveloped camp/day use areas. Corridors allowing camping within 100 feet of the route, or similar exceptions, are hard to enforce and do not permit getting a comfortable distance from passing traffic.

Cumulative analysis:

Cumulative effects analysis sections list possible or known past events, but do not analyze these listings any further, nor do they do the required evaluation of foreseeable events that will likely affect transportation management.

The analysis in the watershed section fails to predict thresholds where the added roads will tip the balance to excess watershed impact.

In addition, there is no prediction of foreseeable events which could affect permissible road densities. Such prediction is the fundamental purpose of a cumulative effects analysis. For example: a fire could destabilize soil for a period of time making it necessary to close marginal roads until soil stability is restored.

The recreation section lists activities that might create more roads, but does not list any activities or events that could require transportation decisions. Nor is there any prediction of foreseeable changes or events. For example: population increases could increase traffic past the threshold of tolerance for non-motorized users. Fire, or other activities reducing cover, could greatly reduce effective SPNM areas. Heavily-attended ORV events could compound ORV impacts on most other uses.

The wildlife section displays the same failings. Recent fires have profoundly altered cover for most wildlife. Loss of cover magnifies the effects of road densities. More fires are almost inevitable. There is no discussion of potential cover loss and the changes that must demand in transportation management.

The DEIS documents likely increases in population. However, neither the cumulative effects analysis, nor any other analysis, mentions the effects of reasonably foreseeable increases in use on the network of routes proposed. Traffic impacts which are acceptable under current use levels are likely to become unacceptable at higher use levels.

The Draft fails to describe past non-action by the FS to curtail damaging ORV recreation in the cumulative effects section. The Executive Orders were issued over 30 years ago. The FS has ignored the growing problem and that is in itself a non-action which has had profound effects. This has resulted in serious land damage, loss of resources (such as wildlife habitat) and entrenched, land-abusive recreation that simply cannot be tolerated. This is a direct result of the past FS decision to do nothing. A candid discussion of this situation would strengthen your justification for closing many renegade routes.

Alternative specific:

Alternative 4:

Elko County is not responsible for resource protection on NF lands, nor is the Co. Commission answerable to any public except those residing in the county. Accepting Elko County road claims without question or impact analysis would be an abdication of a most important USFS responsibility. No Elko claims can be accepted as valid, except in cases where jurisdiction has already been transferred to the County, as documented in legal documents.

We adamantly oppose any provision for game retrieval via vehicle off designated routes. Such an exception can only complicate enforcement. Machine use for retrieval is the likely origin of many of the unauthorized routes. Such use will also disrupt the experience of non-motorized hunters. Boning out game animals in place is an easily learned skill which greatly facilitates back-packing the meat to a road. All other H-T Districts and indeed most all of the NF system has said no to game retrieval. You will need very strong justification showing why your Districts have situations that require this exception. Inconsistency is very hard to justify

We can accept Alternative 4 only if the Elko Co. road claims and game retrieval provisions are excluded.

Alternative 5:

This analysis fails to include road impacts to non-motorized recreation opportunity and non-motorized hunting opportunities.

We must unequivocally object to legitimizing unauthorized routes within inventoried Roadless areas. Legitimizing such routes is tantamount to creating new routes. Ignoring this opportunity to minimize user conflicts, and the various other environmental impacts of unauthorized routes cannot be justified.

An “opportunity cost” analysis discussing the cost of not closing all non-FTS roads in Roadless areas is an essential missing element. In other words, an analysis of the benefits of closing specific routes in Roadless areas is needed.

Wildlife General:

To be useful in decision-making, separate road density studies must be conducted on each approximate home range for each species in question. For instance: individual deer do not occupy all available habitat on the district. The home range of a summering deer is probably around 3000 acres. Elk home ranges are estimated to be about 5000 acres. Analyzing road density for each small watershed within deer and elk habitat, for each alternative, is an essential component to provide critical habitat effectiveness information to make the best possible decisions.

There is no analysis of recent massive alterations of cover due to fires. Loss of cover greatly decreases the tolerance of wildlife for motor activity.

The DEIS, on page 98, describes the FS policy and obligation to protect the wildlife resource on public land. However, the DEIS lacks the crucial analysis needed to determine specific impacts of habitat fragmentation and disturbance from motor traffic on deer and elk.

There is some road density display. However, this information is meaningless for responsible decision-making because Roadless areas were averaged in with high road density areas. This inappropriate method obscures the impact on individual species. Each species has profoundly different sized home ranges and different reactions to fragmentation and motor disturbance.

The baseline science describing deer and elk reactions to motor traffic is displayed, but there is no analysis of road densities for elk or deer. We find no application of this science predicting effects of road densities by alternative on elk or deer distribution. Nor is there a display of opportunities for hunting in areas free of motor intrusions.

The high road density areas may well exclude or greatly diminish elk and deer use. In addition, they may greatly diminish opportunity for hunting free of motor intrusions.

The question for elk and sheep is not whether the populations can remain stable with the preferred alternative. The questions that need to be asked are whether removing specific routes, or groups of routes, could significantly improve habitat and related recreation opportunities.

The DEIS fails throughout to consider trade-off analysis opportunities to improve any wildlife habitat or provide better balance between motorized and non-motorized recreation by closing routes. For example the Bighorn sheep section says.....(roads) “have been in existence for many years; therefore, those routes are expected to have minor impacts on habitat.” The more important questions are whether the sheep have not been using these areas because of the roads and would closure of the road be of benefit. These questions must be asked and answered for most routes in identified habitat .

Roads do not benefit any of the wildlife you have identified and most any road can have significant negative effect. Therefore, there logically must be many cases where road closure would significantly benefit wildlife.

Hunter opportunity:

“Hunter opportunity” is a very valuable resource .There is far more demand for opportunities to hunt deer and elk in Nevada than there is opportunity. This very valuable resource can be profoundly impacted by travel planning. Most any road added to the transportation system will have at least some affect reducing hunter opportunity and thus must be displayed in the DEIS.

The Elko Ranger Districts have the unique situation in which excessive roads in the Bruneau area drive elk deep into remote aspen stands, thus making harvest difficult. Normally, adding roads to areas with cover increases hunter success, thus limiting the number of permits (ie. hunter opportunity) that can be provided by a population of game animals.

The term “hunting opportunity” is often misunderstood. It refers to Forest Service management effects on the number of hunters a game population can support. NDOW can only set seasons and bag limits in reaction to conditions that only the FS can change.

In other words, an analysis of road impacts to hunter opportunity will require different approaches for different areas. You must mix available science with the on-the-ground experience of field biologists. Hunting is of significant economic value, as well as a highly valued activity for a significant portion of the population. It is an activity profoundly affected by FS transportation planning.

Route comments:

We support adding short spur open routes to allow motor access for destination activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, etc.

You propose many seasonal road closures. The administrative and enforcement load will be difficult, if not impossible, with this many seasonal closures spread over such a large area. This reality requires that the FS close these routes yearlong, at least for the routes further than a few miles from the Ranger Station.

We have photographs of numerous roads demonstrating clear resource impact and/or opportunity loss. Our resources were very limited so these photos are only a sampling of unacceptable routes. The high number of readily evident, significant resource damage situations, leads us to assume the FS did not conduct much field work before the proposed alternative was developed.

These photos will be sent on a separate email. Please consider them as a part of these comments. We were unable to attach them to this document.

Summarized BHA Position:

BHA recognizes that touring the National Forests using motor vehicles is a legitimate activity. However, it must always be taken into account that:

Motor-focused recreationists are a small minority. They use a largely disproportionate amount of resources and funding. They displace or degrade the experience of most other users. The FS is required to minimize user conflict.

Therefore, Alternative 4, which reduces travel mostly to the FTS, will likely prove the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the long run – but only if it does not include the egregious Elko Co. road claims and off-route game retrieval provisions.

The DEIS fails to do any “opportunity cost” analysis. Total length of open routes provides little useful information for responsible decision-making. The key question must always be asked: are there particular routes, or groups of routes, which, by closing, could provide significant benefit? A decision to by-pass such opportunity to close must be considered a cost of that decision.

Road density analysis is a basic tool for assessing wildlife impacts. Such analysis is only useful when done for species specific home ranges. Density analysis of large watersheds provides little useful information. The Elko Co. FS Districts provide poor cover for large animals – this makes consideration of, and appropriate method of analysis of, route densities even more critical.

We wish to end by saying we are pleased you are taking on this most contentious of issues. ORV-related problems will never lessen and the longer action is postponed the worse it will get.

Randy McNatt

Nevada Chapter
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

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