McClure dissents, says letter won't further dialogue with Forest Service

Public access took center stage at the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday when supervisors voted to recognize 20 mining roads within the Six Rivers National Forest as valid rights-of-way under a federal law governing roads on public lands.

The action may help the Board fight any future attempts to close backcountry roads, according to County Planner Randy Hooper. Other counties have passed similar resolutions in an attempt to take a stand on public access to national forest land, he said.

"This isn't a county ordinance. This isn't setting any law for the county. No maintenance plans would be developed, and we don't anticipate entering into any negotiations with the Forest Service over these roads," Hooper said. "This is simply a resolution on behalf of the Board of Supervisors recognizing these routes."

Supervisors also voted 4-1 in favor of sending an opposition letter to Randy Moore, regional forester of the Pacific Southwest region of the U.S. Forest Service, which is implementing the first part of its Travel Management Rule.

The letter was developed by the Rural County Representatives of California organization, said County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina. District 2 Supervisor Martha McClure dissented, saying the letter wasn't well-written and likely wouldn't result in increased dialogue between rural counties and the Forest Service.

"This letter is going to hit Mr. Moore's desk and go right into the round can," McClure said. "It's not our letter, it's a canned form letter. It'll piss him off, but it won't get dialogue and I'm thinking more as dialogue."

The resolution and opposition letter are born of frustration over a perceived lack of communication between local government and the USFS on its Travel Management Rule, which determines what forest roads will be publicly accessible. According to county staff, the first part of the Travel Management Rule, or Subpart A, requires a wholesale review of each forest's existing transportation system. The result will be a list of roads for each forest that will be closed and decommissioned.

Revised Statute 2477, which became law in 1866, states that "the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public purposes, is hereby granted."

County staff members interpret that to mean that any right-of-way that existed when RS 2477 was in effect is valid, Hooper said. When the Federal Land Policy and Management Act took effect in 1976, repealing RS 2477, no new rights-of-way could be established on public land, but any established prior to 1976 would remain valid, according to the county's staff report.

The network of backcountry roads in Del Norte County is likely a mix of publicly and privately owned roads, Hooper said. When it comes to fighting for access to backcountry roads in the courtroom, judges have applied RS 2477 as being valid in some cases and not in others, he added.

"The courts are mixed on the issue and that's why the recommendation from staff is not to create a formal ordinance or policy, but simply a resolution that could provide an impetus in the future," Hooper said.

Supervisor Roger Gitlin pulled the resolution from the Board's consent agenda to call to attention a USFS gate that has been blocking access to an area called High Plateau. The road in question, which is an offshoot of the Gasquet Toll Road, was established prior to the 1976 law, said Gitlin, who traveled to the area with the local 4-wheeling club, North Coast Cliffhangers.

"This law needs to be affirmed and remind our partner through coordination that these gates that are up are clearly to my thinking unlawful," he said.

Tyrone Kelley, Six Rivers National Forest's forest supervisor, said RS 2477 only applies to roads that existed in 1866, when it was passed, which consisted of wagon and pack train trails and are not maintained by the Forest Service. The validation of those routes is a decision for a federal court, he said.

Off-highway vehicle access to High Plateau has been restricted due to the Forest Service's efforts to curtail Port Orford cedar root disease, Kelley said. The Forest Service has been successful in keeping the disease out of that area, he said.

"The activity was the vehicles carrying the disease on their tires from an infected area," he said. "Staff went up there and took a look around the closure and there's still very little disease in the area."

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen told Kelley that there have been seasonal OHV closures in other parts of the county in response to Port Orford cedar root disease that have been effective.

"To have a year-round closure seems to be a little extreme," he said.

Steve Bigham, past president of the North Coast Cliffhangers 4-wheeling club, said the club has always promoted responsible four-wheeling, including not traveling off established trails.

"It's very important that we have access to the backcountry," he said. "I'm an avid hunter and fisherman. I've had both knees replaced and a couple of back surgeries and the only way I'm able to access the backcountry is with a jeep or 4-wheel drive."

County resident Eileen Cooper said that she respects OHV use as being important to the local economy, but threats to environmentally sensitive areas also have to be taken into consideration.

"There are many people who come here for the quiet experience," she said.

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