ELKO — U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop said after a congressional field hearing Monday in Elko that “more questions came out than answers.”
He said that was especially true on the question of how the U.S. Forest Service came up with the authority to close roads as part of its Travel Management Plans.
Bishop, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., listened to the testimony of six witnesses, mainly on travel plans.
They also heard testimony on the issue of the Forest Service seeking a share of water rights for improvements to grazing allotments, and testimony touching on the sage grouse issue.
Bishop, the chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said after the two-hour hearing that Republicans may not be able to get legislation through the Senate regarding Forest Service action, so “all we can do is try to stop things.”
He said “the road rule is coming from back East, and also the water grab.”
Amodei, also a member of the subcommittee, said after the hearing he hopes it starts renewed attention to “try to do things through talking with people.”
He said he plans to make an appointment with Regional Forester Harv Forsgren to talk more about the issues.
Amodei grilled Forsgren during the hearing on what authority the Forest Service used to develop the Travel Management Plans across the West, questioning whether simply implementing a new policy creates the authority to close roads on forest land.
The regional forester based in Ogden testified that “effective management of the road system is essential” so the public can enjoy the forests by knowing what routes are part of the system.
He also said all of the travel plans are completed except for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest plan for Elko County.
Forsgren said the plans involved community input, and the Forest Service in Nevada is already going back to look at five of the six plans in the state because the Forest Service views the plans and maps “as an ongoing process.”
Elko County Commissioners led the way in protesting the Travel Management Plan for Elko County that has yet to be put into effect. Commissioner Charlie Myers testified the county has concerns that the Forest Service developed the plan in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and has yet to provide scientific data to back up its plans.
He said the county has even filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act and not heard back.
“Elko County has spent countless hours and many thousands of dollars attempting to coordinate and cooperate with the U.S. Forest Service in their planning efforts to implement the Forest Travel Management Plan,” he testified.
Myers also said the plan would have a devastating impact on Elko County.
“Our economy revolves around three major components: mining, agriculture and tourism. Elko County and many of our local entities have spent many years promoting Elko County as a recreation destination, due primarily to the accessibility of our remote and vast areas of our county,” he said.
Myers said outdoor recreation in Elko County brings in roughly $165 million a year, and 75 percent of the lands used for outdoor recreation are public land.
Doug Shippy, owner of Ship’s Cycle in Elko, testified he had petitions signed by 866 people asking the Forest Service to scrap the travel plan for the forest land in Elko County.
“The economic impact to Elko County caused by the Travel Management Plan ... is incredible,” he said, also testifying that many of the off-road vehicles he sells are for prospectors who could lose their ability to explore for minerals.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee of Utah testified that the travel plan for his area is in effect, but the county is concerned about what has happened. He said the Forest Service was presented petitions signed by 9,000 people opposed to the plan.
The plan affected the economy, and the county has appealed to the regional forester and the undersecretary of agriculture. He said “we hope the decision will be reversed,” compelling the Forest Service to work with local entities.
So far, there has been no response to the county from the federal level, McKee said.
Elko Band Council Chairman Gerald Temoke testified that the Te-Moak Tribe and Intertribal Council oppose the proposed road closures.
“Existing roads that are not on the Forest Service map are considered not to exist. If these roads are not allowed to be used after a short period of time they will for all intents and purposes disappear ...,” he said.
“The Forest Service never consulted or attempted to consult with us until after it was announced that there would be a congressional hearing,” Temoke testified.
He also questioned why road closures should be dictated by bureaucrats.
Forsgren said after the hearing that the travel plan for forest land in Elko County was tailored to the county, and the plan is the only one in his region that allows for game retrieval of elk using a motorized vehicle.
His region includes Nevada, Utah, Idaho, western Wyoming, western Colorado and eastern California.
Forsgren also said another example of how the plan was tailored to Elko County is that it provides camping corridors rather than specific dispersed camping sites.
Forsgren said the plan started out identifying 1,100 miles of roads on the forest in Elko County, added many more roads that are used, and in the end identifies roughly 2,200 miles of roads, closing roughly 200 miles.
“The half-empty view is we will close 200 miles of roads and cross-country travel. The half-full view is that we’ve doubled the amount of roads we will manage,” he said.
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Service Supervisor Jeanne Higgins said after the hearing that she and rangers in the Elko County districts are still willing to meet with Elko County Commissioners on the travel plan, even if the record of decision is signed.
She said the decision is ready.
“There are still issues to be resolved. Whenever Elko County is ready to sit down with us, we’re willing to do that,” Higgins said.
Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico counties, said the Forest Service has failed to meaningfully include local governments in the public in the process for developing travel plans.
“There is clear direction in the laws and regulations for inclusion of state, tribal and local governments to coordinate planning and include these governments as cooperating agencies in the NEPA document preparation,” he testified.
He said Congress needs to make it clear that local governments and tribes must be involved “in a meaningful way, not just creating the appearance of participation.”
Hutchinson testified that there has been “extreme resistance” from federal agencies to cooperate.
He also said sometimes agency personnel are members of “radical environmental organizations whose agenda is to thwart or discontinue resource access and use by humans.”
J.J. Goicoechea, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association and also speaking for the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, centered his testimony on water issues. He pointed out that many water rights have been handed down for generations, and any Forest Service effort to acquire the rights is basically a taking.
Nevada is the only state that specifies water rights on grazing allotments can only be held by those who own livestock, but Goicoechea said the Forest Service is refusing to issue permits for water improvements on grazing allotments.
The regional forester testified that the Forest Service is trying to protect the rights of the public with acquisition of water rights.
Forsgren testified it is intermountain region policy that the Forest Service have a water right on an allotment before funds are spent for any livestock water development project.
Goicoechea also brought up the issue of the sage grouse and keeping the bird off the endangered species list, testifying that the Endangered Species Act needs to be revised.
“Meanwhile, radical environmentalists use it to stop activities, including livestock grazing. Listing the sage grouse would have far-reaching impact,” he said, pointing out that ranchers know that the sage grouse benefits from livestock grazing.
The hearing in Elko drew at least 450 people, including visitors from elsewhere in Nevada and out of state. Bishop said after the hearing he was impressed with the “respectful audience.”
The written testimony of the six witnesses is available on the U.S. House Resources Committee’s website under the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands section.
Bishop said the public also can send comments for the next 10 days to the House subcommittee.