I want to thank Dan Thompson, President of Ravalli County Off-Road Users Association (RCORUA), for responding to a recent letter of mine regarding the 3 Saddle National Forest Project, his ORV organization, and our County Commissioners. Dan’s letter helps the public gain insight into his organization’s positions and priorities, especially with our National Forest (NF) lands. NF projects can be complicated in scope and contentious among different user groups, so learning more of the off-roaders’ viewpoint is appreciated.
Dan quickly and forthrightly noted in his letter that his organization appealed the 3 Saddle Project. No other organization—not one environmental group—appealed.
Deciding to appeal a Forest project cannot be taken lightly. When you appeal a project, you appeal, and therefore oppose, the project in its entirety through your legal action. You can’t pick and choose. No project is perfect. You have to weigh the good and the bad. What are your priorities? What’s best for the community and the environment? Appealing has repercussions, notably project delays. This is what RCORUA did with 3 Saddle.
Why did RCORUA appeal? Because of small-scale road decommissioning – part of the Project’s restoration component – to help with water quality, fish and wildlife habitat. Their organization’s position is explicit in opposing all road decommissioning, just as our Commissioners dictated in their County Resource Plan. The Commissioners wholeheartedly supported the off-roaders’ appeal, despite the lost jobs and increased fire danger that resulted.
Dan was correct in noting that 20% of the road mileage in the Project area would be decommissioned (roughly 10 of 50 miles), as per the Record of Decision. As it turns out, if Dan had dug a little deeper—remember, appealing is serious—he’d have discovered in the road database that most of the roads slated for decommissioning were in fact already decommissioned! Turns out only a couple miles would truly be decommissioned, and for important natural resource reasons.
Unfortunately, Dan and RCORUA decided to appeal over 2-odd decommissioned miles, out of 2700 miles of roads on our Bitterroot National Forest (BNF). Over 2600 miles of roads and trails are open to motorized exploration on the BNF.
Apparently off-roaders use one of the proposed decommissioned roads. Therefore, their reasoning goes, the whole project should be stopped through appeal. This smacks of unbridled selfishness, putting their one short ATV route above significant natural resource concerns, jobs, and improving recreational opportunities for hunters, hikers, and anglers. It demonstrates ideological rigidity, much like our three Tea Party Commissioners, resulting in harmful policies and obstruction. It’s a short-sighted, purist mentality that’s stubbornly uncompromising and counterproductive.
NF projects often involve roads—adding new roads, repairing old ones, closing or decommissioning others that are simply unneeded or causing too much harm. We have too many Forest roads and too little money to maintain what we have. Old, poorly engineered, unmaintained roads can cause resource degradation. Any serious-minded organization, be it environmental or motorized, cannot have an absolutist policy regarding roads. To demand the BNF exclude any decommissioning from all “logging projects” is unrealistic and damaging to our environment and economy.
Dan unfairly blames “environmental groups” for holding up 3 Saddle. No environmental group appealed 3 Saddle. RCORUA was the only group. RCORUA had an “appeal resolution meeting” with the BNF, where the off-roaders laid out their case. BNF representatives politely and methodically refuted RCORUA’s assertions and explained their appeal had no merit. But RCORUA continued their appeal, further delaying 3 Saddle’s implementation. It was this continuation of a merit-less appeal that delayed 3 Saddle long enough that the bids couldn’t go out. Yes, a recent court decision does require closer scrutiny of projects that are in critical lynx habitat. But the “damage” was already done—the off-roaders’ appeal delayed it long enough that the project will be nine months or more tardy.
Ravalli County has been unduly harmed by a majority of Commissioners who take rigid, extremist, uncompromising positions. Their government mismanagement and harmful policies are all too clear in their Natural Resource Plan, their ineptitude and political cronyism in the Road Department and Treasurer’s Office; the closure of the Family Planning Clinic, and now an unabashed land grab attempt of our public lands.
Dan’s organization is unfortunately aligning themselves with the Tea Party Commissioners’ policies; following a similarly extreme, uncompromising agenda that’ll only lead to more obstruction, lawsuits, damage to our environment, and fewer jobs with less work being done in the woods.
I realize it is Dan’s and his organization’s prerogative to continue with their unyielding positions, like our Commissioners. But I believe a more open, farsighted, and willing-to-give-a-little attitude would help advance public land management here on the Bitterroot. We have to hope the off-roaders and County Commissioners will consider changing their absolutist “no road decommissioning” policy.
Van P. Keele