Primroses lie along a road high in the Ashley National Forest Reservation Ridge area.
Officials with the Ashley National Forest held public hearings last week to take comments on proposed changes to a travel management plan that will set the rules for off-highway vehicle use in the forest.
A small group of Duchesne County leaders, OHV users, hunters and others gathered in Duchesne last Tuesday night to voice their opinions about the plan that could restrict the number of designated motorized routes and trails in the Ashley.
"We can't overemphasize that motor vehicles are an appropriate way for people to be able to access and recreate on the forest," said Ashley National Forest partnership coordinator Don Jaques. "This is not about trying to close the forest to motorized vehicles."
Jaques said there has been "an exponential amount" of population growth in the Uintah Basin and a dramatic increase in OHV ownership. The vehicles themselves have become more powerful as well, and with the newer side-by-side models, are capable of carrying more people into more remote areas.
"In Utah, OHV use ... has increased over 256 percent from 1998 to 2008," Jaques said.
Numbers in the Uintah Basin, gleaned from state registration records, are far more staggering. From 1998 to 2008, Daggett County saw a 663 percent increase in OHV ownership, while Duchesne and Uintah counties saw increases of 509 percent and 479 percent, respectively. Carbon County has also shown a great increase in OHV ownership despite the fact that the area has not expanded in population very much. Many Castle Valley residents utilize trails and roads in the Ashley National Forest near the White River and over Indian Canyon.
Jaques said the goal of the travel management plan is to "provide better opportunities for sustainable motorized recreation, while protecting our resources (and) also addressing public safety concerns."
The draft environmental impact statement created for the plan offers five alternatives. Forest officials said they believe Alternative B addresses the concerns and comments offered by 1,200 respondents so far. That alternative would change the rules on dispersed, motorized camping.
At present dispersed, motorized camping is allowed within 300 feet of a road. Under Alternative B, that would be reduced to 150 feet. Game retrieval will also not be allowed off designated routes.
Hunters and OHV users at the Duchesne meeting said they would support a trail-specific fee system if it meant ensuring greater access to the areas they like to frequent.
"That's the society we live in today," said Duchesne resident Jeremy Taylor. "If you want it nice, you're going to have to pay for it."
Taylor's comments were supported by several other users at the meeting, who also volunteered to help build and maintain trails in cooperation with the Forest Service. The sentiment appeared to surprise Ashley National Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliott.
"I'm really encouraged to hear you all talk in that vein," said Elliott.
"Whatever alternative is picked, there will be work that needs to be done," Elliott told the Duchesne group, "and I'll be coming to you for help."
Elliott referenced the support offered during the Duchesne meeting when he met with Uintah County residents Thursday night.
"I have done this before where coalitions can work together to open new trails and make them sustainable," he said, adding that those at the Duchesne meeting "said to give them a call for a work project on some Saturday. 'Let's work on it together' was their offer and this makes sense to me if we can work something like this out."
Two nights later during the same meeting in Vernal a person asked Elliott why Forest Service officials are seeking to reduce access rather than increase enforcement.
"You have a bunch of young kids tearing up the the roads and they are the ones that need rehabilitating," the man said.
"You're forcing all of us into the same areas of riding and camping," another said. "We will be like sardines in a can all trying to use little pieces of the forest."
Others at that meeting accused Forest Service officials of having their minds already set on a course of action and of over-regulating public lands. Elliott conceded that in the end, the decision on which alternative to adopt is up to him, but said he has yet to reach that point.
"The map is not set in stone right now," he said.
The Ashley National Forest will continue to accept written comments on the draft environmental impact statement for its travel management plan until June 1. The entire draft travel management plan can be viewed at: www.fs.fed.us/r4/ashley/projects/travel_management.