Thursday, March 01, 2007

Off-Trail Permits

Note: This Boulder Outdoor Coalition Letter on Off-Trail Permits was Written on March 12, 2006. While somewhat dated, it still outlines our apporach to this important issue.


The Visitor Master Plan (VMP) prescribes closing Habitat Conservation Areas (HCA’s) to off-trail travel. While this regulation may appear to have a certain logic, a brief examination reveals severe problems:

While some HCA’s actually are relatively pristine, as implied by their designation, many others have a long history of human interaction, with readily apparent roads and structures and a tradition of human travel – both on and off trail -- that continues to this day.

Most existing roads and trails are not “officially designated” in the VMP. Thus, despite their history of use, current popularity, and public assumption of continued use, they may actually be closed to human use, depending on the outcome of various individual Trail Study Assessments.
Alternately, some HCA’s do not have any existing trails, designated or not, yet people have gone there for decades.

In either case, since “designated” trails do not exist in most of the HCA’s, and these areas together comprise roughly 40% of all OSMP property, by banning off-trail travel, one is effectively banning all travel in a very substantial portion of our public land.

Many stakeholders agreed in 2004 that this predicament was unacceptable. Voters did not expect to be barred from the land they have willingly purchased. Small, specific closures for documented scientific reasons have always been accepted, but a blanket default closure of thousands of acres is a severe violation of public trust and government accountability.

The concept of Off-Trail Permits was therefore proposed as a compromise in the VMP. The Off-Trail Permit system was intended to monitor visitor usage and potential resource degradation, and thus establish data to be used in a scientific analysis of management actions. Permits are intended for monitoring; they should not be used as a de facto closure tool.


On March 9, 2006, OSMP hosted a meeting and introduced their proposal, OSMP Habitat Conservation Area Off-Trail Permit—Draft Monitoring and Education Phased Alternative Report,” to manage and enforce Off-Trail Permits. Approximately 30 members of the public attended this meeting.

Staff’s proposal consisted of the following elements:

1) Phase I (first year) is for collecting information about the numbers of visitors and places they go, as well as educating visitors about HCA’s and permits. Permits will be required in Phase I, but the number of permits will not be limited. Phase I HCA’s will include Western Mountain Parks, Lower Boulder Creek (White Rocks), and Southern Grasslands (south of Marshall Mesa); Eldorado Mountain will be included after the Trail Study Plan is complete. To facilitate monitoring and resource protection, HCA’s will be broken into subareas based on ecological and visitor patterns.

2) Phase II (subsequent years) – Remaining HCAs will be included. Inventory and monitoring information will be used to determine use levels, impacts and an off-trail access plan, which may include no restrictions, visitation limits and seasonal or full restrictions on Off-Trail Permits in each HCA subarea.

3) Administrative Details including group size limit (up to five people per permit), phased-in grace period, fines starting at $100 with revocation for two years if two violations in two years, on-line application, via mail and in person at Cherryvale and Ranger Cottage.


Administrative parts of the proposal (Table 1) are mostly acceptable to the Boulder Outdoor Coalition.

However, the additional proposed seasonal and temporal restrictions on off-trail visitation (as delineated initially on the Lower Boulder Creek, Southern Grasslands, and Mountain Parks West HCAs) are inadvisable for the following reasons:

1) The merits of additional closures and restrictions should be studied and subjected to public discussion on their own merits. These can involve significant scientific and other issues. There was nothing in the off-trail permit announcements from OSMP that notified that public that the March 9 meeting would be used to raise, for the first time, additional restrictions.

Moreover, these restrictions are fundamentally unrelated to the permit issue. If there is a valid closure, such as a properly designed raptor closure, the public would understand that any proposed permit system would require the public to continue to observe the closure. The process of working out the logistics and details of a permit system should not be an occasion for suddenly introducing significant new restrictions that are unconnected to the permit process. OSMP could adopt a permit system and then, with adequate time and public notice and discussion, address whether there should be changes to the restrictions due to species concerns,

2) HCAs already have an extraordinary layer of protection, given that off-trail travel is banned except by permit-holders, and most new trails in HCAs will be difficult to get approved.

3) The subareas proposed for the Southern Grasslands HCA bear no resemblance to the subareas delineated in the Marshall Mesa-Southern Grasslands TSA a mere month earlier. Furthermore, the new subareas proposed on March 9 are far larger and more complex than what may realistically or statutorily be needed to protect certain species.

4) The new subareas represent a chaotic jumble of outlines that overlap and change week-by-week, making it difficult for the public to understand and to support. Without public support, the Off-Trail Permit system, and by extension the Visitor Master Plan itself, will fail.

5) There is significant room to question the need for these additional restrictions. Many of them are very broad in temporal scope, very broad in geographic scope and purport to protect places that “may” contain species of concern. But, some of those species are not even known to exist in the areas being proposed to protect them, and other species mentioned as “of concern” are not (such as coyotes).

6) The new subareas can be perceived as a de facto method of fragmenting recreational habitat, since they reduce the connectivity and size of areas for people who appreciate off-trail travel to go. .

7) The new subareas, and additional seasonal closures in general, are not part of the the publicly approved Visitor Master Plan. If staff is contemplating offering these seasonal and spatial closures of subareas with no restrictions on the number of permits, versus offering severe restrictions on the number of permits with no subarea closures, they should make this tradeoff clear to the public and allow full debate on the merits.

The attached maps of the Southern Grasslands HCA, showing “subareas” delineated by OSMP in February for the TSA process (simple, acceptable) and in March for the OTP process (complicated, overburdensome), illustrate why we are concerned about this issue.

The Boulder Outdoor Coalition submits that because of the Permit requirement not very many people will go off-trail in HCAs, and therefore impacts from this use will be negligible, so the number of permits should not be limited – but we are willing to await the results of the first year trial period before making a formal statement about the outcome.

Accordingly, we propose that the question of additional spatial and temporal restrictions due to species concerns be entirely removed from the off-trail permit process. If OSMP wants to propose additional new restrictions, it should make a clear public announcement to that effect and allow adequate time for input and discussion focused on those restrictions. Tacking those issues on to the tail end of a discussion on the administrative aspects of permits does not give these serious new steps sufficient time for debate and reflection.


1) We want a system that is reasonably convenient. We oppose any effort to impose a permit system that is so cumbersome it amounts to a de facto closure.

2) We want to accommodate reasonable environmental concerns.

3) We want to educate the public about their possible impacts on the ecosystem they enjoy.

4) We want to ensure that OSMP conducts an objective evaluation of off-trail travel that determines real and not imaginary impacts.

5) We urge OSMP to clarify the definition of off-trail so that it truly concerns going off-trail rather than incidental activities.

6) The standard for limiting the number of permits in Phase II should be changed in two ways:

“localized impacts” should be changed to “localized impacts associated with off-trail use.” Impacts that are associated with on-trail use should not be a basis for limiting the number of off-trail permits.

“detected” should be changed to impacts that “are above and beyond a clearly identified baseline condition.” The term “detected” is very loose and could be interpreted to mean impacts that already exist.

“resulting in significant impact” [or words to that effect] should be added, so that off-trail users are not unnecessarily penalized for trivial impacts.

7) The permit should cover the entire HCA. We do not object to the applicant being asked to more specifically define where they are going within the HCA (for data purposes) but for enforcement purposes the permittee should be OK anywhere within the HCA.

8) Clarify the 5 person per permit rule to make clear that groups of 6-10 are ok as long as they have 2 permits.

9) Include a provision for people to report that they did not use the permit, ("no shows") to improve accuracy of record keeping and so that they don’t count against the limit.

10) Make clear that rangers may warn, but absent an abusive situation generally should not enforce against, incidental off-trail activities (e.g. having lunch a short way off the trail, call of nature, etc.). We suggest a “corridor” concept for ordinary on-trail use, such as 100 feet on either side of the designated trail. Off-trail use and regulations would begin outside this corridor.

11) Conduct surveys or other formal or informal means of gathering data (with no punishment for participants) to determine the percentage of off-trail users who are getting permits. If it turns out that there are adverse impacts, it will be important to know whether the problem is that there are too many permits or whether the problem is that people are not getting permits. The latter situation does not call for a reduction in permits, it calls for greater education and outreach to get people to buy in to stewardship responsibilities.


We support Off-Trail permits as long as they are administered equitably and are not used arbitrarily to close large tracts of Open Space and Mountain Parks land. A permit system should allow OSMP to monitor how many visitors go off-trail and assess what, if any, their impacts might be. This policy would establish a scientific basis for further management policy, and thus build the all-important public trust and acceptance in the process. When the public has “bought-in”, science and databased restrictions can be accepted, thus ensuring a successful outcome for the whole process.

We support the Phased Alternative approach outlined in the March 6, 2006 Report, as well as (generally) the policies outlined in Table 1.

However, we do not support the new and complex staff proposal to close small sub-areas of HCAs temporally and/or spatially, as we see this as micromanaging and an ill-conceived attempt to further restrict visitor use of the HCA’s. The public accepted the concept of HCAs only in the belief that the layer of protection afforded these areas by their designation as HCAs would be sufficient. We still believe that by restricting visitor use to designated trails and permitting all off-trail use, these areas will remain protected, because the overall number of visits will decrease and only those who agree to follow accepted norms of behavior will go there.


We urge staff to reconsider the aspect of Off-Trail Permits involving sub-areas within HCAs.

Sub-areas should be large, general, and easily understood, and used for reporting purposes only. They should not be based on small-scale habitat or seasonal closure considerations, since those parameters are confusing and have the potential to become overused by OSMP as a device to close Open Space.

We encourage staff to conduct another round of meetings with interested stakeholders to work out the details of sub-area reporting.

OSMP’s inclusion of our recommendations will go a long way toward restoring a relationship of constructive dialogue and accomplishment of our mutual goal: maximizing human appreciation of Open Space and Mountain Parks while minimizing our impacts.


The Boulder Outdoor Coalition

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