Steamboat Springs In the Routt Forest plan, the U.S. Forest Service's bible of local land management, California Park is categorized as a "special interest area."
When seeing 12,000 to 15,000 acres of range land shadowed by Elkhead Range peaks such as Sugar Loaf Mountain, Bears Ears Peak and Meaden Peak it's easy to understand why.
This summer, new management strategies on the 23,854 acres of the park, north of Hayden and west of Steamboat Lake, are being implemented and changes in how the public accesses the area are on the horizon.
"One of the goals of a special interest area is to develop an integrated management plan," Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Robert Skorkowsky said.
Skorkowsky is drafting the management plan, which identifies some problems to improve the health of California Park.
The purpose of these actions, which are being outlined in the nearly completed management plan, lies beneath the obvious beauty of the area.
The high elevation meadows, creeks and tree stands have proven to be home to three key sensitive species in California Park.
One of four boreal toad breeding sites in the Routt National Forest, an endangered species and candidate of federal species protection, is in a creek in the park.
"We treat this like a federally endangered species," Skorkowsky said. "Our goal is to recover this species without it getting listed."
The toads return to the creek each spring to find a mate and lay thousands of eggs. But only a few of the toads survive.
Also, the Colombian sharp-tailed grouse, which was petitioned for federal endangered or threatened protection, has three leks (breeding areas) in the range land. It is the only Forest Service land in the country that maintains a sharp-tailed population, Skorkowsky said.
Furthermore, the one-time federally listed sandhill crane calls the park home. In 1999 the bird was "de-listed," with help from an extensive recovery plan in California Park, which justified closing the park from May 1 to July 1 since 1979 to protect crane breeding sites.
However, the exceptional element in California Park is the sensitive species have lived side by side with years of abundant human influence including about 100 years of livestock grazing in the area and thousands of big game hunters setting camp there each year.
Though past management of the public land could have helped cultivate this environment, it also had some negative affects on the land, too, Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said.
Forest officials who have taken a close look at the vegetation, wildlife and stream in the area have concluded that it would behoove the Forest Service to take some action of protection in the area, Vogel said.
"We have a lot of opportunity there," she said.
Moving and closing roads is one action that has taken place, and more of it is being considered for the future, Skorkowsky said. Last year, the Forest Service held public meetings about 50 miles of roads in California Park it identified to possibly close.
"A lot of roads weren't really built; they were just pioneered by people," Skorkowsky said.
Forest officials believe roads cause run-off issues and "pioneered" roads too close to streams can damage riparian areas.
Plus, roads providing numerous access points to places where elk live is suspected to be detouring hunting success, Skorkowsky said.
"There are thousands and thousands of elk and their numbers are increasing," he said. "Elk are big, heavy animals and have an impact on the area."
Skorkowsky wants a smaller population of elk in California Park. And closing some roads, especially those on ridge tops, could improve hunter success.
Highly used Forest Service Road 116 is being considered for closure. It runs east and west on ridge tops in the Elkhead Range. Large numbers of hunters on that road tend to push the animal north and south, eventually running the animals onto private land about five miles away in each direction.
"That would probably have a major impact on folks," Skorkowsky said of closing F.S. 116. "But our objective is to improve their hunting experience."
The Forest Service believes the 12,000 to 15,000 acres open range in California Park has some problems thanks to over grazing in the distant past and some questionable land management moves.
Today, about 12,000 sheep and a couple hundred head of cattle graze in California Park. It is suspected that at times in the past, more than triple that number of livestock were grazing there.
Since 1979, California Park has been closed from May 1 to July 1, as part of the sandhill crane recovery project. During that time, thousands of elk grazed in the open meadows. The range is hit again by livestock in the summer and fall, creating more stress on the plants, Skorkowsky said.
Plus, in the '50s and '80s, herbicides were sprayed in the park to encourage the growth of grasses.
"This might have been good for some species of vegetation," Vogel said. However, she added that it also drove away important plants that stabilize the soil and provide cover for sharp-tailed grouse.
Coupled with the grazing of elk and livestock, the area has had a difficult time recovering and much of it is suffering erosion damage or being taken over by foreign plants with low range value. To improve it, Skorkowsky spearheaded an effort to plant 500 acres of seed to provide soil structure and cover.
Skorkowsky and Forest Service Biologist Jenna Boisvert also supervised a team last week that planted 4,600 thurber fescue plants.
"This will improve habitat for the sharp-tailed grouse," Skorkowsky said.
The seed was machine planted, while the thurber fescue was hand planted.
Wait for action and results
It will take a few years before officials will know if the plantings are successful. However, success is relative. Even if 20 percent of the plants live, they will produce seeds and possibly multiply, which will be deemed a success, Skorkowsky said.
"We're hoping by the third year we'll see a difference," Boisvert said, while hand planting a thurber fescue. "Once they get to be big enough to be the size of sage brush, (grouse) will start coming over."
As far as road closures, the Forest Service took public comment from California Park rifle hunters last year, but missed archery hunters. Before anything drastic is done, Skorkowsky said the archers will have to be talked to.
"It might not be until 2002 or 2003," he said.