Travel planning on public land.
The mere mention of it draws different reactions from different people. Some public land managers begin feeling queasy; public land users begin casting suspicious looks at each other; mothers rush their kids out of the room; and preachers start writing sermons about sharing and caring.
Well, maybe not quite.
However, travel planning on public land is one of those unique discussions of the American West that makes public land users of all types come to the public participation table with distinctively differing opinions--and often times, limited concern for other perspectives. Typically, four-wheel drive enthusiasts, mountain bike riders, hikers, hunters, horsemen/women, pleasure drivers, landowners, motor bikers, and outfitters have distinct opinions about public land travel and how it impacts, or may impact, their own opportunities on public land.
Travel planning challenges land managers to find better ways to involve the public, design suitable alternatives, and make multiple-use management decisions that resolve or prevent resource issues.
Where to Start?
About 18 months ago, the Lewistown Field Office was at the threshold of starting a travel plan for the Judith and North and South Moccasin mountains near Lewistown.
The Judith and North Moccasins are relatively small mountain ranges with at least some public access and a variety of road and trail combinations across the public lands they contain. Some earlier travel management recommendations have been implemented while others have not. As is common with public land that is close to a community, recreational use and conflicts are increasing in these two mountain ranges. There is no public access into the public lands in the South Moccasin Mountains.
Designing an equitable travel plan encumbered by these circumstances seemed the equivalent of putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the finished image would look like.
As a means of avoiding some of the problems common to travel planning (and a variety of other public-land planning issues) the Lewistown FO was determined to involve the public at the very onset. Public involvement requires extra time in the planning process, but in most cases provides better decisions in which the public and management share a sense of ownership.
During a July 2006 meeting of the Central Montana Resource Advisory Council (RAC), the Lewistown FO approached the council about assuming an integral role in this planning effort. After an extensive question and answer period, the council recommended forming a subgroup to study the project in detail and then work toward creating a set of travel plan recommendations for the RAC to consider.
The subgroup would be chaired by Terry Selph, with assistance from Ron Moody and Glenn Terry. All three men were RAC members (Glenn has since termed off the council) and regular contributors to many RAC discussions and recommendations.
The Lewistown FO would support the subgroup by providing accurate maps, inventory data, a description of current management, revised maps as necessary, and at least one staffer or manager at each subgroup meeting or field trip. And, as an extra assist (which would prove very beneficial), the Lewistown FO directed a few dollars toward the effort; advertised for bids; and awarded a contract for a facilitator to help add a sense of organization to the project and to track the information and discussions the subgroup would generate.
Forming a subgroup is not an easy task and both the RAC and the BLM offered names toward a pool of potential members. Selph, Moody and Terry then contacted those suggested about serving on the subgroup. It’s critically important that any subgroup mirror the basic structure (categories and interests) of the RAC and it took most of the fall and early winter of 2006 to secure subgroup members along those guidelines.
By the spring of 2007, a subgroup consisting of motorized and non-motorized interests, hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, horseback enthusiasts, grazing permittees, other agency representatives and landowners was ready to venture into the world of consensus-based resource planning.
Early on, the subgroup decided that field trips combined with public meetings would provide them the best opportunity to see firsthand some of the travel issues and opportunities on the ground and to benefit from a wide variety of public comment. The facilitator, Mr. Bently Roth, with Ram Intergrated Solutions, from Molt, Mont., was also dedicated to attending each field trip as well as the meetings.
Through the spring, summer, and fall of 2007, the subgroup hosted multiple field trips and work meetings (all open to the public) as they worked their way through a complex maze of existing roads, trails, uses, conflicts, resource needs, current management guidance and potential opportunities.
Rod Sanders, a recreation planner in the Lewistown FO, and/or Willy Frank, an associate Lewistown field manager, accompanied the subgroup during its field trips and attended each meeting. They were able to advise the group about existing management guidelines and answer a gamut of questions from subgroup members.
Through the course of these field trips and meetings, the subgroup began to jell as their mutual trust and confidence increased among themselves. Most of the subgroup members became and remained very dedicated to the challenge of finding a representative set of travel recommendations for these public lands. They contributed considerable amounts of time, energy, effort, and cooperation to the project -- all key attributes to a successful subgroup.
Through the winter of 2007, the subgroup met several times to review the information they had gathered and to continue refining a set of inclusive travel recommendations.
Central Montana RAC Endorses Subgroup’s Recommendation
In January 2008, Terry Selph brought the subgroup’s recommendations before the RAC. A number of subgroup members also attended this council meeting to see how their recommendations would be received and to help answer any questions that may arise.
RAC members asked questions about how the recommendation package would represent the various public interests, and how additional information from the public could be added to the process. After being satisfied with responses to both of those concerns, the council unanimously thanked the subgroup members for their dedication, accepted their recommendation package, and conveyed it intact to the BLM.
The RAC’s conveying this travel package to BLM with no further study or revision was a pretty strong endorsement of the subgroup’s efforts.
A Satisfying Product
This past March, the BLM hosted an afternoon/evening open house in Lewistown to discuss the subgroup’s recommendation package, answer questions, and to accept additional comments from the public. The open house would be another measure of how the subgroup’s travel recommendation package would be viewed in the court of public opinion.
It was an interesting open house. Some of those attending had worked previously with the subgroup; several wanted to offer their comments late in the process; and a couple of folks were attending because they suspected that the BLM was simply going to gore their ox.
The conclusion of the open house was even more interesting. After brief presentations about the resource issues, the subgroup’s efforts, and their recommended travel plan package by Willy Frank and Rod Sanders, those attending were invited to review maps of the recommended travel plan and talk with resource specialists. By the end of the night, without exception, the attendees were impressed with the subgroup’s product; amazed by the amount of work invested by subgroup members; satisfied that their interest had been involved; and encouraged by the BLM’s willingness to open this process to the public.
All in all, the subgroup, the RAC, the BLM and the public seem comfortable that this complex puzzle came together quite nicely. As a result, the BLM now has a proposed alternative for travel planning in the Judith-Moccasin Mountains that addresses the issues and needs; represents and provides something for all interests; and perhaps most importantly, is a true product of the public the BLM serves.