Major changes could soon be coming to trails in the national forest near Coeur d’Alene. After months of public meetings and an exhaustive internal analysis of 300 proposals, the U.S. Forest Service provided a first glimpse Thursday night of its vision for an expanded backcountry recreation network.
Those who like it quiet could soon get an extra 43 miles of trails under the proposed travel management plan, including several new nonmotorized routes south of the Fourth of July Pass, as well as along the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene and in the Chilco Mountain area.
Those who love to speed through the forest on the back of a motorcycle, four-wheeler or jeep will also get more places to play. The Forest Service is proposing 101 new miles of year-round trails for motorized users. Currently, 134 miles of such trails cross the national forest between Coeur d’Alene and the Montana border.
Most of the new trail miles will be built on Forest Service roads and trails that are currently closed to public use. The changes are not expected to be formalized at least until spring. The plan does not include any changes for winter recreation.
Although there was no lack of grumbling Thursday night when the changes were unveiled – the ranger, at one point, even had to stop the session to demand an extra dose of civility from the crowd – most groups say they were happy to see the expanded trail network.
Until recently, for instance, jeep drivers didn’t even have a dedicated trail system in the 700,000-acre Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District. Under the proposal, they will get 48 miles of winding, bumpy, dirt roadway, including a route that leads northeast out of Prichard, Idaho.
“We were coming in with nothing, now we’ve got 48 miles,” said Coeur d’Alene resident Mark Tihonovich, a member of the North Idaho Trail Blazers club. “It’s a step in the right direction, for sure.”
As a legacy of decades of intensive timber harvest, some 7,000 miles of roads and trails crisscross the Coeur d’Alene River district of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, making the district one of the most densely roaded forests in the nation. The vast majority of these roads are no longer open to public travel. Some of the roads are now grown over with brush and have been blocked by earthen berms.
In an effort to bring some order to this heavily roaded backcountry, the Forest Service created an access plan in 2001 but was promptly sued by environmental groups, who said the road management plan lacked a solid foundation in science.
The current process is part of a nationwide effort to create a core network of designated trails in national forests, said Randy Swick, ranger of the Coeur d’Alene River district.
The Forest Service invited the public to submit proposals for changes to existing roads. Swick said no proposals were considered that involved extensive construction or that involved trails illegally cut through the forest. The agency doesn’t have enough money to maintain its current road network, Swick explained.
By next summer, the Forest Service hopes to formalize its trail proposal for the Coeur d’Alene district and publish a new map with all the changes, Swick said. The St. Joe District will then begin its trail designation process, followed by the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake districts.
Because of staffing and budget shortfalls, it might take months or years before all the changes are implemented on the ground with new signs or gates, however. Swick said enforcing the changes could also be a challenge. The district has only one law officer but is now in the process of deploying a force of four unarmed “forest protection officers,” whose job it will be to patrol and educate in the backcountry.
“We can have the paper plan, but the big issue is whether or not people will abide by the plan and whether or not we can enforce the plan,” Swick said.
Mike Mihelich, an environmentalist from Coeur d’Alene, said the travel plans are not worth much without adequate enforcement. “They’re closed on paper, but they’re not really closed on the ground,” said Mihelich, who appeared to be the only supporter of nonmotorized recreation in the crowd of about 50 people.
Richard Good, of Hayden Lake, expressed outrage that his disabled hunter access idea wasn’t included in the plan. Good, a disabled Vietnam veteran, said federal disabled rights laws guarantee him the right to hunt from a vehicle virtually anywhere on national forest roads, even those closed to motorized use. He vowed to fight for additional access, including filing a lawsuit.
“I owe it to my fellow veterans,” he explained.