County works to provide public land access

Environmental groups say process may lead to 'damaging' improvements

Moffat County officials are putting the final touches on a plan they say will help ensure the public's access to public land in Moffat County.

For the past year, the county has been undergoing an R.S. 2477 Inventory Protocol, which ensures the public the use of a secondary road system that snakes through the miles of federal land in the county.

The system includes roads accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles, and some passages that can only be traveled upon on horseback or for the movement of livestock.

Some of the roads inventoried are more than 100 years old, according to Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock.

The county is basically developing a map system that recognizes that these roads exist, Comstock said.

"It identifies roads that the federal agencies can consider in their decisions," Comstock said. "It formally places a right-of-way network federal agencies can consider."

Critics of the process, including several environmental groups, say places like Moffat County that take on this process are trying to empower themselves to pave old trails, and take away from the pristine open land.

But Comstock said those attacking the process are incorrect in their assertions.

"We're not out there to turn livestock paths to highways," he said. "The point is to ensure public access to public land. We like the solitude and primitive nature of these areas and we want to maintain that."

Once the protocol is adopted, there won't be bulldozers sent out to change the nature of these paths, he said.

"Essentially it's lines on a piece of paper at this point," he

said.

Three tools were used to inventory those routes, Comstock said. They included:

  • Aerial photographs.
  • Affidavits and signed testimony
  • Existing federal maps.

"We selected the routes that provide public access without ruining the landscape," he said.

What the protocol does, Comstock said, is forces federal officials, like those with the Bureau of Land Management, to consider the roads when asserting wildlife or monument designations in certain areas.

"It forces agencies to recognize these valid existing right-of-ways across the public land," he said. "It brings a partner, the county, to the table on these public land issues to address our problems and concerns."

Identifying the right-of-ways ensures that the county has a say when threats to public access come about, he said.

"We don't want wilderness, and we don't want recreation to be hampered," he said. "These roads are a tool to protect the custom and culture of the area."

Moffat County held a meeting Monday with representatives from several area state and federal agencies including the Division of Wildlife, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.

"We're here to work with you but we're also here to protect historic accesses," Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson told those present at the meeting. "We're not here to destroy our management abilities but these are historic right-of-ways."

The county informed the agencies that it planned to adopt the protocol at its Jan. 9 commission meeting, and said the agencies had until then to share comments or concerns they had about the protocol.

Many representatives said they were concerned that there was not enough time being allowed by the county to study the maps and identify concerns they might have.

Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office Director John Husband said the roads could infringe upon some wilderness study areas identified by the BLM.

"In terms of getting down to comments on specific roads, we can't do that right now," he said when asked by the county if the BLM had any concerns about the proposal.

County officials argued that the other agencies have known the county has been working on the plan for a year, and said if concerns arise after the protocol is adopted, the agencies are welcome to discuss them with the county.

The historical rights for these paths are there, and the county is simply identifying them, Dickinson said.

"If you think there is a way in which these roads should be used, send it to us," he said. "We don't have a maintenance responsibility to go out and change that. We have identified that we support recreation and recreation activities. The county's goal in doing this is maintaining the public's access to public land."

The Moffat County Land Use Board will make a recommendation on the adoption of the R.S. 2477 Inventory Protocol at 3 p.m. Friday in the Moffat County Courthouse Annex building.

The county has held five public meetings seeking community comment on the issue.

At a meeting in Dinosaur this week, Comstock said more than 50 people attended, and said he has a file of more than 100 comments that have been factored into decisions made on the maps.

He said one concern that has been put to rest in the public meetings is that new trails being identified on private land.

"It's only on federal land," he said. "There are no routes on private lands unless a private landowner volunteered to have a route across their land."

Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or jnichols@craigdailypress.com.

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