Custer National Forest Travel Plan

Forest Travel Plans designate the “system” of travel routes on the Forest land.  They state which routes are open to use by motor vehicles (and what types of motor vehicles), and which routes are only open to non-motorized travel (and what types: hiking, biking, horses).  Therefore Travel Plans are a significant determinant of how the public uses the forest, and of the impacts of that use.

Brief History:

A Travel Plan for the Pryors was completed in 1987 as a follow-up to the 1986 Forest Management Plan.  (This replaced a 1980 Travel Plan.)  This 1987 Travel Plan designated a little more than 100 miles of motor legal roads on the USFS part of the Pryors.  Motor vehicle use off these designated routes was not permitted – even where there were existing tracks.  Only licensed vehicles with licensed drivers were allowed on the designated routes.

During the next two decades the number of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) users in the Pryors increased drastically.  Many of these 4WD and ATV riders drove wherever they wanted and could, creating new two-track routes and increasing the visibility and attraction of previously existing, but closed, two-track routes.  Custer National Forest nearly completely failed to enforce the 1987 Travel plan.  The result was frequent motorized use of approximately 100 miles of unauthorized (i.e. illegal) routes  in addition to the authorized routes thus doubling the miles of motorized routes in the USFS Pryors.

The New Travel Plan:

During the period from 2003 to 2008, CNF was intermittently working on a new Travel Plan.  Unfortunately they were doing so without first updating the the archaic 1986 Forest Management Plan.  They were doing so without any clear vision of the future of the Pryors.

The Pryors Coalition and its friends spent many hours at public meetings with Forest staff, and writing comment letters to the Forest about draft proposals.  Written public comments supported the Pryors Coalition’s proposal and Vision over the Forest Service’s “preferred” alternative by a two to one, or three to one, margin (depending on counting criteria).  Yet in 2008 the Forest Supervisor (just seven months before he retired) made a Travel Plan decision that largely dismissed all the recommendations of the Pryors Coalition.  Instead the Plan granted most of the wishes of the ATV riders and other four-wheelers.  The USFS part of the Pryors (especially Big Pryor Mountain – the biggest block) has been effectively designated as a motorized playground.  Furthermore on most of the routes on Big Pryor Mountain the new Travel Plan permits (and thereby encourages) both unlicensed vehicles and drivers.  There is no minimum age limit for drivers.

An Unbalanced Decision: No opportunity for non-motorized recreation

One of Custer National Forest’s primary stated objectives for the new Travel Plan was to “provide for a variety of motorized and non-motorized opportunities.”  (emphasis added)   The new 2008 Travel Plan designates 124 miles of motorized routes crisscrossing the 75,000 acres of  USFS land in the Pryors. But it provides only one designated non-motorized route just over one mile long.

Anyone wanting to hike in the Pryors must choose between hiking on a road with the commotion of ATVs, or bushwhacking cross country in the fragments between the too abundant roads.  Often this requires a long 4WD drive into the Pryors for a short hike.  People without a 4WD vehicle, and/or who want to hike on a quiet trail, are out of luck.

Someone who wants to go for a quiet hike in the Pryors should be able to go to any Custer National Forest office and ask for directions, and a map, to designated non-motorized trails.  Some of these should be accessible without a rough 4WD drive.  There should be a sign at the trailhead, and a trail leading through interesting country.  Cross country route finding skills should not be needed.  This is exactly what CNF provides for ATV riders in the Pryors.  CNF provides no equal opportunity for non-motorized users.

Our request that some of the eight routes up Big Pryor Mountain be reserved for non-motorized use allowing separation of motorized and non-motorized activities was rejected by the Forest.  All such routes are motorized.  Apparently the “need” to provide abundant loop and figure-eight opportunities for ATVs trumped the need for quiet non-motorized hiking, mountain biking and/or horse riding opportunities.

All our efforts to convince Custer NF to first protect the natural resources, and only then design a balanced plan to share the land among various users were dismissed.

Further Reading:
Management Issues
Custer Gallatin National Forest Management Plan
The Pryors Coalition’s Vision
Law Enforcement