Wilderness could eclipse Hermosa Creek
Upcoming forest plan revision to consider wilderness designation

The San Juan National Forest plans to begin its forest plan revision in coming months and will consider whether existing roadless areas should become designated wilderness. The Hermosa Creek area, the forest’s largest roadless area, could be a candidate for wilderness which would eliminate biking on the renowned trail./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Big changes could be in store for the landscape surrounding Durango. With public land composing the majority of La Plata County, the forthcoming revision of the San Juan National Forest Plan is bound to have far-reaching impacts. One potential component of the revision, designation of a Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area, already has local cyclists and trail users raising their eyebrows.

Of the San Juan National Forest’s nearly 2 million acres, more than 400,000 acres are located within the boundaries of La Plata County. The management of these lands, whether it be for timber or mineral extraction or recreational use, has been guided by a plan that has been in place since 1983. Nearly everyone would argue that the plan is hopelessly outdated. With the hope of bringing the plan up to date, the San Juan Public Lands Center gathered public input in 1996 and 1997, but since that time, work on the revision has been hampered by a lack of funding and changing rules. However, the San Juan National Forest should be fully funded and in the revision process in less than two months, when the new fiscal year begins in October .

“We’re trying real hard to make that happen,” said Thurman Wilson, assistant manager of the San Juan Public Lands Center. “I’m about 90 percent certain we’ll be able to get into it this fall.”

Describing what the center is likely to get into, Wilson noted: “It’s the time when we step back and look at the big picture. It starts with trying to find the niche that San Juan public lands play in the greater picture of national public lands.”

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, said that this look at the big picture has been a long time coming. “Their plan is 20 years out of date,” he said. “There are totally different circumstances on the forest than there were back in 1983. Oil and gas weren’t really big factors back then, and mountain biking hardly existed.”

There is at least one area where mountain biking and forest management could come to a head in the upcoming revision. As part of any forest plan revision, roadless areas must be considered for recommendation as potential wilderness areas. Far and away the largest roadless area in the San Juan National Forest surrounds Hermosa Creek, northwest of Durango. That same roadless area surrounds the Hermosa Creek Trail, widely considered one of Durango’s and Colorado’s greatest mountain biking assets.

Commenting on the trail’s value, Bill Manning, Trails 2000 executive director, said, “It’s revered across the nation as one of the premier mountain bike rides.”

The Hermosa Creek Trail takes a breather from its usual status as one of the
area’s most popular mountain biking corridors. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Manning added that the whole drainage makes up an excellent local trails network, naming trails like Jones Creek, Dutch Creek, Pinkerton-Flagstaff and Corral Draw. “A broad range of trail users enjoy other trails in that drainage as well. Every side creek in there has a trail in it. Some of them get highly used. Some don’t see much use.”

A congressional wilderness designation would prevent cyclists from entering the area.

Though he said he was hesitant to offer an opinion so early in the process, Wilson said: “Hermosa Creek is a really big roadless area. There’s about 145,000 acres that are unroaded there. In our minds, there’s really nothing going on that would limit its candidacy.”

However, Wilson added that from the San Juan Public Lands Center’s perspective, there also are no real problems with the way the roadless area is currently being managed.

“It’s providing what we consider a different set of experiences than you get in wilderness,” he said. “Hermosa fits a nice niche between wilderness that takes you days to walk into, on the one hand, and a ski area on the other. It offers a good mix of different opportunities for people.”

However, while the area surrounding Hermosa Creek does not have the restrictions associated with designated wilderness, it also does not have the protection.

Jeff Berman, executive director of the conservation group Colorado Wild, commented, “It is certainly one of the areas that has wilderness quality lands that are as yet unprotected.”

Pearson noted: “That area was recommended for wilderness in the ’70s, but it never got designated. At that time, motorcycle groups were a big opponent to the designation.”

As for current impacts to the roadless area, Pearson referenced the Dutch Creek timber sale five years ago. “Timber sales are eating away at the edge of it,” he said. “They’re punching roads farther into that roadless area.”

As a result, Pearson said the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance will forward what it hopes will be a mutually agreeable solution once the revision process begins. “For Hermosa, we concluded that we didn’t want the trail corridor designated as wilderness,” he said. “But from the trail west is a big chunk of untouched land. Hermosa is also one of the most diverse forests in the state because of the big elevation change. It’s certainly an undeveloped gem.”

Manning said that he can sympathize with the desire to have the area protected. “I think what the environmental community feels really strongly about is the long-term protection that wilderness affords. Once it’s declared wilderness, it’s hard to get roads in there and extract.”

However, Manning added that designating wilderness on any side of the Hermosa Creek trail would have serious impacts on local recreation. “I hope our community thinks through this carefully,” he said.

Wilson said that for the time being, the San Juan Public Lands Center has no feelings on the issue one way or the other. “We have not gone through that evaluation process so I don’t have an opinion,” he said.

However, with respect to the likely revision of the plan, Wilson noted the changing face of the San Juan National Forest and an increasing emphasis on recreation.

“It’s something that’s been evolving over the past couple decades,” he said. “Now some of the real highlights of the San Juan National Forest relate to recreation. Even in that recreation backdrop, there are still some traditional uses like grazing and timber harvest going on.”

As the revision goes forward, Pearson remarked that the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance plans on keeping an eye on those traditional uses as well, saying oil and gas development, ski area expansion, watershed impacts and logging will be hot topics. However, he also said that over the last five years of ups and downs, he’s grown skeptical about the forest plan revision process.

“They had a lot of momentum before they started sputtering five years ago,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see if they can regain that.”

If the process does begin this October as planned, Wilson said a draft of the revised plan should be completed in roughly 18 months.






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