Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

It's hard to overstate the mining legacy of Del Norte County. For example, during World War II there was more chromite mined from the hills of Del Norte than any other single county in the country.

With more than 250 abandoned mining sites on the Gasquet Ranger District/ Smith River National Recreation Area, there are hundreds of miles of mining roads, many of which were never adopted into the Six Rivers National Forest Transportation System.

Designating which of these roads and trails on the Smith River NRA will allow motorized vehicles has been a long and controversial process that has been ongoing for more than ten years, but completion seems to be in sight.

This month Six Rivers released the draft environmental impact statement for the Smith River National Recreation Area Restoration and Motorized Travel Management project, which is open for public comment until June 10.

Only those who submit public comment on the draft EIS will be able to file an objection to the final EIS, which Six Rivers expects to release later this year.

Addressing old mining roads

The sheer number of old mining roads on the Smith River NRA has made it much more complex than on Six Rivers' other districts to implement the Travel Management Rule, a 2005 directive from the U.S. Forest Service's Washington, D.C., office to identify and designate roads and trails open for motorized use.

Unofficial roads and trails on the Smith River NRA are called "unauthorized routes" or UARs in agency speak, and as part of the project proposal many will be torn up and "restored" to their natural drainage patterns, most often because they are in riparian areas and/or can cause erosion into creeks.

Six Rivers preferred project alternative (alternative 6) would barricade and restore to nature 101 miles of UARs.

Another 54 miles of UARs will be added into the National Forest Transportation System, becoming legal routes for motorized travel, mostly designated as motorized trails.

Motorized travel on UARs has technically been illegal since the Smith River NRA was created in 1990, but this statute was rarely, if ever, enforced.

Although project alternative 6 would decommission 54 miles of roads currently on the forest transportation system, there would be an overall addition of 16 miles of legal motorized access, in large part due to the UARs not being legal motorized routes.

Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson has often said that closing any of the roads in the Six Rivers National Forest would endanger public safety by making it more difficult for search and rescue operations or for targeting off-the-grid criminal activities.

Progress on the local travel management plan has been positive enough for off-highway vehicle user groups to voluntarily dismiss a lawsuit that was filed against the Forest Service for not properly engaging the public in the process in 2010.

But for some local off-highway vehicle user groups, the project still restricts access too much, especially on UARs.

"Just because they didn't recognize the (UARs) doesn't mean that the public didn't recognize them as a road to get somewhere, and if you take that away from them how do you get to that campsite that you've been going to since you were 19 years old?" said Jim Pofahl, president of the North Coast Cliffhangers, which was a plaintiff for the 2010 lawsuit against Six Rivers.

Lawsuit dismissed

The lawsuit was filed in response to Six Rivers publishing a Motorized Vehicle Use Map in 2009, which the plaintiffs alleged did not undergo a sufficient public planning process. The lawsuit also alleged that storm-proofing projects to improve drainagethat were conducted by the Forest Service on the Smith River NRA were done without proper public involvement.

The Smith River NRA travel management project has since gone through the time-intensive National Environmental Policy Act process, prompting plaintiffs to enter into a voluntary dismissal. If plaintiffs find the outcome tobe unsatisfactory, they could refile the lawsuit.

Paul Turcke, the attorney for the plaintiffs, which included Del Norte County, Del Norte Rod and Gun Club, Lake Earl Grange, the North Coast Cliffhangers, Blue Ribbon Coalition and California Association of 4WD Clubs, has worked on more than 40 cases involving travel management projects and said that dismissal was appropriate.

"The current process we think reflects enough movement forward by the Forest Service on both of our concerns to direct our energies into the process," said Turcke, adding that there is a "night and day" difference between the storm-proofing planned in 2009 and what is outlined in the draft EIS. "It would have bordered on irresponsible to push this case forward. I'm considering this a success story."

Despite being listed as a plaintiff in the suit, Del Norte County officials were surprised to hear that the case was dismissed and said that the dismissal was never communicated to the county Board of Supervisors.

It turns out that the Board of Supervisors never officially authorized joining the case and the dismissal was not communicated to them.

Nonetheless, county administrative officer Jay Sarina said last week that the decision to move towards the dismissal was a "solid choice to do."

'Huge victory'

Don Amador, the western representative of BlueRibbon Coalition, a national off-road vehicle user group, is largely seen as leading the charge on the travel management lawsuit against Six Rivers.

"The lawsuit was more about the agencies' lack of public involvement in their trail closures, and the stipulation where we got them to agree to a fair and open public process before they close a road to a trail or campsite I think is a huge victory," Amador said by phone last week. "All of us would like to see the agency come to a final decision that we can more or less support and move on to better management of land instead of continuing to battle them in court."

Not pleased yet

The Motor Vehicle Use Map that caused so much controversy with its release in 2009 is still in effect, despite being challenged in court and several requests from the county BOS to have it withdrawn.

"We don't believe it's an accurate map, and that's still a confusing thing," said county supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen, who has been closely involved with the travel management project.

Pofahl, of Cliffhangers, said that the final Motor Vehicle Use Map needs to include all of the roads out on the forest so that users do not accidentally travel on a road not authorized for motor vehicles.

"We don't want people to get tickets," Pofahl said.

Christy Prescott, Six Rivers' lead staff person for the project, said that Six Rivers is very limited in what can be included on the Motor Vehicle Use Map because its creation is directed by the Washington office, but that other forest service maps that include all roads - including closed roads - can be produced that would be more useful for navigation.

Hemmingsen is pleased that the preferred project alternative includes access routes to 50 dispersed campsites, which was a suggestion from the county that Forest Service officials applauded.

"We did make some headway on the dispersed campsites - maybe not as much as we wanted but they at least took a look at it," Hemmingsen said.

Pofahl is upset that the proposal doesn't reopen roads closed years ago like those in the High Plateau area of the North Fork Smith River watershed that the Forest Service closes year-round to prevent the spread of Port Orford cedar root disease, which can be spread from mud on tires.

Other roads on the forest are closed seasonally to prevent the spread of the root disease, but Prescott said that since the Peridotite Canyon Creek is entirely unaffected by the root disease, the forest service has implemented a higher level of protection.

Pofahl said he believes that the Forest Service's ultimate goal is to turn the High Plateau area into a federally designated wilderness, prohibiting all motorized vehicle access.

Prescott said that the High Plateau road was specifically left on the system and not decommissioned to maintain the possibility of reopening the road in the future - not turn it into a wilderness area.

Mike Tolson, vice president of the North Coast Cliffhangers, questioned the need to take out UARs to prevent erosion.

"Most of the roads up there have been there for over a hundred years, and they've had no adverse effect on the watershed - we have the most pristine river in the United States," Tolson said, adding that his group's excursions are "not like the Baja 500."

Prescott said that given that the Smith River is an important salmon and steelhead fishery and a National Wild and Scenic River, it's important to address erosion potential that can impact fish spawning.

"Sedimentation from roads and failing roads are one of the biggest risks to our streams," Prescott said.

Time to comment

There has been significant interest in this project, with more than 600 comments received each time environmental documents were circulated in both 2010 and 2012.

The proposed action that was circulated for public comment in April 2012 is modified in the alternative released this month in order to avoid Traditional Cultural Properties, areas that are listed or nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, including American Indian sites. Those areas will be addressed in a separate project.

The five alternatives and maps that are in the latest draft EIS range from keeping the status quo to options that lean toward pleasing off-road enthusiasts or satisfying people who value roadless areas and more protection of plants and trees.

In many travel management cases that Turcke has been involved with, the objective is to get the land agency to give the public a fair shake, he said.

"It doesn't matter where you stand on any of these issues; the important point is that this is your opportunity to have a voice in the process," Turcke said.

To make public comment and access the draft EIS and maps online go

The draft EIS and maps will also be available for viewing at the Forest Service offices in Gasquet and Eureka, as well as the Del Norte County Library in Crescent City.

Information for providing public comment is in the cover letter.

Reach Adam Spencer