Upper Meadow Creek Basin, Francs Peak area
Upper Meadow Creek Basin in the Francs Peak inventoried roadless area (Photo courtesy of Charles Wolf Drimal – click to enlarge)

Fight brews over proposed motorized access to Franc’s Peak

by Kelsey Dayton
— March 18, 2014
Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

The Shoshone National Forest is known for its incredible backcountry areas and its seemingly unending opportunities for recreation: climbing, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, mountain biking and off-road vehicle riding.

The problem is the opportunities aren’t always endless, and it can be hard to share certain areas while still protecting the values that make the forest home to a variety of wildlife.

After years of planning the Forest Service released in January a final draft record of decision that will guide management on the forest for the next 15 to 20 years. The draft decision featured a brand new alternative, or plan, for forest management that would allow motorized trails in previously non-motorized areas in the Franc’s Peak and Wood River areas of the forest. That alternative, which hadn’t been included in the planning process before, has some recreationists celebrating while others are angry.

Forest spokeswoman Kristie Salzmann said it was one of the most discussed topics at the series of public meetings the forest service held in Dubois, Lander, Thermopolis and Cody this month. She explained the change came after reviewing comments with off-highway vehicle clubs.

Francs Peak
Francs Peak (Wikimedia Commons)

The plan does not mean motorized use will be allowed in those areas, Salzmann said. It means managers can consider motorized trails during the travel management planning process. In other parts of the forest plan, managers removed from consideration some areas originally proposed for off-road vehicle recreation because they fell in the primary conservation area for grizzly bears.

Motorized recreation is a growing sport, and setting up a good management system is important so people don’t illegally ride wherever they want, Salzmann said. Motorized trail sizes vary, but vehicles have to be 50-inches wide or smaller to ride them, she said.

The problem is that the areas in the plan proposed for motorized use have the highest potential for wilderness designation on the forest, said Charles Drimal, Absaroka-Beartooth Front contractor with Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The Franc’s Peak and Wood River area has a rich heritage of non-motorized activities like horse packing, hiking and hunting. It is home to big horn sheep and migrating elk. Grizzlies frequent the area to feast on its high concentration of army cutworm moths, which are an important  food source for bears. It also is one of the rare places in Wyoming where there are high elevation antelope and sage grouse populations.

Wood River area, Wyoming
The Wood River roadless area (Photo courtesy Charles Drimal – click to enlarge)

Conservation groups have advocated for wilderness designation for the areas to prevent things like this happening, Drimal said. Land managers need to view the forest as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and think about how managing creates ecosystem-wide impacts, especially when it comes to wildlife. If motorized use is allowed in the areas it will be much harder for it to ever be considered for wilderness.

One of the biggest issues for opponents of motorized use in the area is the timing. “It’s such a fast and strange turn of events, we were just unprepared for it,” said Dave Burke, a former Park County commissioner who worked with the Forest Service on the plan while serving in his elected position.

Burke understands motorized recreation is growing and he’s fine with people riding ATVs and dirt bikes in certain areas, but he says the Franc’s Peak and Wood River areas on the Shoshone Forest aren’t appropriate due to their wildlife values.

Burke was one of several people who met with Gov. Matt Mead’s natural resources policy advisors, Jerimiah Rieman and Jessica Crowder, hoping to convince the governor to file an objection to the plan. The governor is still reviewing the plan and talking with citizens, spokesman Renny McKay said. Gov. Mead has not yet publicly stated his position on the draft record of decision.

In comments submitted in November, 2012, Mead did acknowledge that motorized use is a growing activity on the Shoshone National Forest and that while the draft plan increased motorized trails, it wasn’t enough to provide a quality trail system. Mead asked the Forest Service to work with the Wyoming State Trails Program to find places for additional connector trails to create loops and where illegal and duplicative trails could be eliminated.

Adding trails to this area makes sense, said Dana Sanders, president of the Northwest Wyoming Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance. There are old motorized trails in the area that haven’t been used for decades that he’d like to see opened to create looped trails. Off-highway vehicle recreation is one of the fastest-growing forms of recreation in the West and brings the state millions of dollars in revenue, Sanders said.

The Forest Service listened to the group and even opened up more area than they requested, Sanders said. The plan alternative could result in 10 new miles of trail, and it could take years before completed, according to Sanders. People hear that thousands of acres could be considered for motorized use and they panic, he said. Riding is restricted to trails, which are narrow and can only be built on certain terrain.

Of the almost 2.5 million acres of the Shoshone, 1.9 million acres are designated non-motorized, or wilderness, Sanders said. “It’s amazing that the very small percentage we can even think about building a trail on, people go nuts over,” he said. “We can’t even use this small piece without a fight.”

The forest is meant to be multi-use and areas can, and should be, shared, he said. Especially since people who ride ATVs outnumber backcountry horsemen, Sanders said. Many people who choose to use ORVs to recreate are older and can’t hike because of hip or ankle issues. Many members of the organization are older than 50, or are families. Sanders’ wife and kids ride.

“It’s just a different tool to explore God’s country,” he said. “We just want to share of it. We aren’t asking for all of it, just a small piece.”

The problem is the area isn’t conducive to sharing with fast and loud machines, said Barry Reiswig, a backcountry horseman who frequents the areas. “We go back into that country to get away from that stuff,” he said.

In Reiswig’s view, the Forest Service is taking a myopic view of the forest. While much of the Shoshone is non-motorized, right outside the forest service boundary there are millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management land mostly open to ORVs and thousands of acres of other terrain in areas like the Big Horn National Forest, the Black Hills and Medicine Bow national forests.

“This is kind of our last stronghold and we are not just walking from this,” Reiswig said. He plans to file an objection, but says that is harder than if he’d known motorized use in the area was a possibility and he’d been able to advocate against it throughout the planning process. He said the change feels like a “back-room deal.”

People are allowed to file an objection if they submitted a comment during the public commenting period and the plan was not changed to match what they lobbied for. Anyone can comment on changes in the proposed final decision that are different than what was presented in the planning process.

The objection period ends March 26. The Forest Service’s review office will then have 90 days to review and respond to objections. A final record of decision is expected to be in July. For more information visit this website.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. “Of the almost 2.5 million acres of the Shoshone, 1.9 million acres are designated non-motorized, or wilderness, Sanders said. “It’s amazing that the very small percentage we can even think about building a trail on, people go nuts over,” he said. “We can’t even use this small piece without a fight.”

    Is it really just all about people? and getting as much ‘use’ as possible out of the last sliver of wildlands left? We’ve taken away 99% of all of our wildlands habitat in the contiguous U.S. The Shoshone, the GYE, and areas north along the continental divide spine into Canada are all that’s left for these megafauna. ATV’s are one of the worst, scientifically proven worst, things for wildlife. Let us be more generous, more magnanimous. We have a unique, special place here in the GYE; our North American Serengeti. It’s so fragile and by whittling away at it little by little, soon it will just be gone, a memory, and so will the megafauna that need these large tracts of landscape, without human interference, in order to make their living.

    People like Sanders, only thinking of recreation, the ‘fun hogs’, are forgetting really what is unique about wild lands. They are places of spiritual refreshment for humans, and places where wildlife can live. If he truly cares about “God’s country” as he says, he’d live it alone, not full of gas fumes and noise, just like God intended.

  2. “We just want to share of it. We aren’t asking for all of it, just a small piece.”

    I can already enjoy 4 million miles of roads in this country alone while remaining stationary in my car. How much of this world do motor-dependent folks need? Is there a right in this world to remain sedentary?

    Off-road vehicles take lazy, cowardly people deep into areas where lazy cowards don’t belong. If a person needs to remain seated to enjoy the outdoors, Wyoming already has plenty of pull-offs along its highways.

  3. There is already too much wilderness in northwest Wyoming, and the wilderness proponents want to take the rest. This is a very modest proposal. Please go ahead with it, Forest Service.

  4. I have been looking for areas of beauty that may compare to the fully accessible areas around Telluride, Colorado. I would like to thank the previous commenter for giving me some ideas of where to look in this state. I have been amazed by how inaccessible Wyoming’s beauty is, and it’s nice to get some ‘insider’ information. Thanks, wrk

  5. In a perfect world , the offroad motorized thrillmobilers would do a good job of policing their own ranks , and would follow the rules by staying on the designated trails set for them and be respectful of all the resources around them when cruising open lands.

    But they do not.

    It is far from a perfect world. Those of us outside the ORV community can rightfully say we seem to be infested by mechanical vermin. Internal combustion powered vermin that are too often a reckless scourge because there is a remarkable lack of enforcement. The Forest Service and BLM simply do not have the manpower and logistical support to police the ATV’ers that run rampant over the landscape. ( If you doubt this, go into upper Sunlight Basin NW of Cody in the late summer , for starters ).

    Regarding the Francs Peak area, there are some old roads up into the Gold Reef mining area via Phelps Mountain , into the cirque below Francs Pk and the headwaters of Francs Fork, Webster Creek, etc. . What a shame the wilderness boundary did not swallow these old abandoned roads. The situation across the rivervalley on Carter Mountain above the Pitchfork Ranch is even worse…an old road to the top of the mountain up Pickett Creek that should long ago have been reclaimed is now an ATV freeway. Frankly , not enough of the upper Greybull is wilderness or defacto wilderness. Down lower in the forested areas, the situation becomes more acute, where yearround wildlife habitat is in conflict with ATV users vermnizing thru the trees on the Dick Creek Road connecting to the Wood River.The ATV-OHV cabal wants to open up as much of the Greybull River landscape as possible to their selfish uses.

    Spokesmen for the OHV group claim they want to add ” only ” 128 acres of trail to the existing roads in the Greybull River hills. Those seemingly small acres actually would partition and fragment the countryside for miles in all directions, as backcountry roads are wont to do. It’s also quite possible that those existing old forest roads should be retired if we adhere to the principle of highest and best use of the resource. Funny how nondevelopment or downdevelopment never seem to come into the working equations.

    My suggestion would be for the Forest Service to take each and every person who worked for years on this new Shoshone Forest Plan , and deputize them as tree cops. Get them out from behind their desks and computers , give them a badge and a ticket book, and send them to the trailheads to bust ATV’ers who are not following the rules about staying on trails and not bothering wildlife, etc.

    The tree cops will need a lot of blank tickets…