For nearly nine years, Six Rivers National Forest has been working to take stock of all roads on the Smith River National Recreation Area/Gasquet Ranger District, decide the fate of each of those routes, and then implement those decisions, meaning ripping out some old roads and adopting others into the transportation system.
The Smith River NRA Restoration and Travel Management Plan, prompted by a top-down Forest Service directive issued in 2005, has been fraught with delays due to inadequate environmental review, lawsuits and the sheer size of the project, which involves formally addressing hundreds of miles of old mining and logging roads that were never officially recognized as National Forest roads.
Public comment on the most recent travel management project proposal closed this week to the dismay of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, which had requested an extended comment period to adequately address the lengthy Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
During Tuesday's Board meeting, county supervisors chafed at the fact that their request for a comment period extension was denied.
Chairman David Finigan called it "arrogance" that the Forest Service did not listen to the Board's request for a delay and has not engaged in sufficient "consultation and communication" as outlined in a memorandum of agreement adopted by the county and signed by the Forest Service's regional forester, the Bureau of Land Management and groups that advocate for California counties.
In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Acting Forest Supervisor Mike Minton said that the public comment period was already extended from the minimum 45-day period to a 60-day period in anticipation of a request for an extension.
"Given the level of public involvement and county coordination efforts proceeding this comment period, 60 days is adequate for public comment," Minton's letter to the county states.
County wants no closures
Without an extension, the Board unanimously approved an official comment letter on the project to the Forest Service, which voices several concerns regarding how the proposal to limit or eliminate motor vehicle access on some trails and roads will negatively impact the county.
Del Norte County Planner Randy Hooper said that the position of the Board has been that "the removal of any of these routes is unacceptable."
"The public has been extremely supportive of the position of this Board," Finigan said during Tuesday's meeting.
"Many of the people that have used these roads their whole lives found (their possible closure) to be offensive," Hooper said.
Forest Service officials emphasize that it has been illegal to use motor vehicles on any old mining and logging routes not on the National Forest Transportation System since the NRA was created in 1990 and that the travel management plan has to formally address these unauthorized routes. The routes are either on the system or they're not, and since the Forest Service cannot commit to maintaining all of the roads, some are going to be removed.
The county's letter says that the closure of any road goes against the operating plans of both the county and the Smith River NRA.
"It is the opinion of this Board that any restoration (closure), decommissioning, or downgrading of roads or trails represents a reduction in recreational opportunities," the county's opinion letter says.
Such a reduction is in conflict with the county general plan and the management plan for the Smith River NRA, the letter states. The county also questioned why many roads that only have a low or moderate risk for water quality impacts are scheduled for decommission.
The county's letter also asserts that the closure of roads could inadvertently impact water quality by making it easier for illegal marijuana grows to flourish on forest land that would suddenly become less accessible to law enforcement.
"Barricading and decommissioning roads (which will surely not deter the criminally inclined) should be reserved as a last resort for roads rather than the default option," the letter states.
The county also suggests a list of unauthorized routes (old mining and logging roads) and dispersed campsites that should be accessible considering that they are used frequently by Del Norte Search and Rescue.
Recognizing the historical nature of many of the mining roads and old mine sites in the Siskiyou Mountains of Del Norte, the county letter recommends more access to these historical sites, also citing a 19th century statute that recognizes those sites as historic and within county jurisdiction.
The county also recommended options to support responsible recreation by suggesting that more roads and trails be designated as "mixed use" in order to create legal off-highway vehicle loops, and it provided a list of the best candidates for such designation.
"The County believes that designating these roads as Mixed Use will provide an incentive to responsible recreating in the NRA and will discourage irresponsible recreating in unauthorized areas," the letter states.
Del Norte County planning staff is currently exploring designating county roads that traverse the NRA, like Low Divide Road and French Hill Road, as mixed use, which would make funding available from the California State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Grant Program, often called the "green sticker" program.
The county would still be eligible to obtain federal funds for those roads as well.
"There doesn't appear to be a whole lot of risk to making that a non-highway road," said Del Norte County Planner Randy Hooper.
But that's a whole other project, and for now wrapping up the travel management plan, now in its ninth year, is the goal of Six Rivers.
"My staff and I are eager to move this project from the planning to implementation phase," Minton's letter to the county states.
During Tuesday's meeting, county Supervisor Mike Sullivan called into question whether the latest travel management proposal would escape the fate of the last attempts.
"For eight or nine years, they have not been able to get their travel management plan together; just a complete lack of cooperation with the local community," Sullivan said. "Their final decisions have been overturned numerous times and it's going to be the same with this one. Eventually at some point they'll get their act together - we hope."
Reach Adam Spencer firstname.lastname@example.org .