SALT LAKE CITY — Public access to areas inside the controversial Bears Ears National Monument is becoming an issue of concern among local residents, even as the monument's ultimate fate remains a question.
Off-road enthusiasts and other residents say the U.S. Forest Service has been increasingly posting road closures on areas at Elk Ridge, with multiple signs going up over the Labor Day weekend.
The Forest Service, however, says these are "unofficial" roads created by unauthorized use marked closed about seven years ago.
"We don't just close roads" without going through a federal review process, said Michael Diem, the district ranger for the Manti-LaSal National Forest, which covers lands within the new monument.
But Devin Hancock, with the Stewards of San Juan County, isn't buying the agency's answer.
"The roads that have been eradicated are main access roads that have existed for decades, and have been used by hunters, hikers, ranchers, wood gatherers," she said.
"When the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument began, we were promised “access to off-highway recreation on existing routes," Hancock said, pointing to language on the Forest Service's website.
Diem said the roads have been marked closed in varying ways over the years, but people remove signs, creating confusion.
The signficant increase in visitation due to the monument designation is hastening the need to protect vegetation and other natural resources, he added.
"We are seeing a substantial increase in recreational visitation, particularly over the last several years. We are getting an increased use of the trail system. With something that is not an official route, people go out there randomly and cause further damage."
Diem said signs were placed this summer notifying visitors that the agency would be "decommissioning" about a dozen unofficial routes, including messaging that advises them the roads will be obliterated.
Critics believe the closures are more tightly linked to the monument designation than the Forest Service will say.
These “unofficial routes” are deep-rooted and well-traveled by members of the community. One day the road can exist, and the next there is a gate stating, “To Be Obliterated," Hancock said.
Diem said there is no correlation with the monument designation.
"The key thing on this is that the routes that are being decommissioned were discussed years before the monument design," he said.
But Bob Turri, an off-highway enthusiast, said the agency is wrongly still managing forests for "preservation," even as it admits that recreation is becoming the major management issue.
Turri, in a letter to the San Juan Record newspaper, complained about the would-be "obliterated" roads.
"Are these our lands or do they belong to some agency manager who dictates what we can and cannot do on our lands?" he wrote.
Turri, whose off-road group has worked for years with the county and federal agencies on trail access and appropriate signage, questioned the road closures given recreational demands and access for firefighting purposes.
"Some of these roads targeted for obliteration went deep into areas with little other access," he wrote.
Diem said the district understands the contentious nature of road closures, but emphasized that the agency has been working with the county and others to develop dispersed camping access and other recreation improvements.
"We strongly value access to public lands and understand the importance of roads to motorized users," he said.