Growing threats of violence; increasing rage; calls to restore liberty by throwing off unjust and unconstitutional government rule. The voices of the angry are loud and they're likely coming soon to a Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service office near you.
The issue that inspires this fury is closing roads through public lands. Does a Sunday drive merit all this outrage? Do we have so few problems in this recession-rattled, deeply divided country that access to roads is worth this war of words?
Here in Moab, Utah, a group called the Sagebrush Coalition recently formed to protect the motorized access that already exists on federal lands. They've held public meetings, met with BLM and Forest Service personnel and promoted their message in the local newspaper. Their rallying cries at gatherings include, "We want our public lands open!" and "They're ours—take them back!"
At issue is the federal government's authority to manage, and, more specifically, accept or decommission roads. The matter is currently coming to a head across the West as numerous BLM field offices update their resource management plans. These plans, in part, determine what routes remain open for travel. In addition, the Forest Service is complying with the 2005 Travel Management Rule, which required each national forest to designate which roads are acceptable for motorized use. We desperately need updated management plans. Existing management documents were drafted 20 or more years ago—well before the current explosion in motorized recreation.
To some critics, however, the new plans have conspiracy and tyranny written all over them. One Colorado resident said at a hearing that land-management agencies are restricting public access so the Chinese can take over mineral rights promised to them as payment for U.S. debts. Another Coloradoan, Doug Maxwell, told the Denver Post: "The Forest Service has no right to enforce any laws. They can't enforce laws unless they are deputized by the county sheriff." Maxwell has been sitting in protest outside the public lands office near Dolores with a sign reading "Road Closures = a Step Toward Tyranny."
Here in Moab, Dave Cozzens, a member of Moab's Sagebrush Coalition, was quoted at a recent meeting saying that, while he doesn't advocate violence against BLM employees, "if this stuff continues, that will happen. That will be a natural result of what they're doing."
In Colorado, Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell agrees with that sentiment. He told The Cortez Journal: "If a Forest Service personnel is attacked, I will do everything in my power to protect them, but, at the same time, I think they are really bringing it on themselves."
Let's be honest: Government tyranny is not the issue here. We've got more than enough roads in our backcountry to please drivers, and some roads should never have been created in the first place; they're in wetlands or in other inappropriate places. It is exactly the responsibility of government to decide which roads to keep and which ones to close. Better late than never. The alternative is anarchy, a spaghetti-like mess of haphazard, illegal roads.
Talking tough doesn't help; intimidation usually backfires. The truth is that public lands are still largely accessible. The Resource Management Plan for the BLM's Moab Field Office, for instance, left 3,693 miles of roads open for full-size vehicles, with an additional 300 miles of track strictly for motorcycles or ATVs. This is the equivalent mileage of making a roundtrip from Seattle to Chicago. Furthermore, the routes closed were those that damaged the land and served no special purpose, according to public comments. The agency's recreation planner also pointed out that those roads whose only stated value was "fun" remained open.
I understand that locals don't appreciate "outsiders" managing their backyards and prohibiting what's been acceptable for decades. For many people, road closures probably represent all the frustrating things in life that can't be controlled; they signify unwelcome change and uncertainty.
Yet even as I try to understand why people talk about the need for armed protests, I still find it pointless and distracting. Life in the West has already changed, probably forever. Recreation on our public lands is booming, and everybody wants a piece of the federal estate. Meanwhile, office-bound bureaucrats are ill-equipped to rationally manage millions of acres of in-demand public land.
So while I, too, hate the added restrictions coming our way in this new era of resource management, I believe that they're necessary. What we are witnessing, like it or not, is the natural evolution of a recreation boom, and road rage, however well-organized, won't hold it at bay.
Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes and runs chainsaws in Moab, Utah.