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Forest plan to be released Tuesday

by Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – After three years of studies, public comment and rewrites, the final White River National Forest Plan will be unveiled Tuesday at the U.S. Forest Service offices in Glenwood Springs.

The Forest Plan is revised every 10 to 15 years and guides the management practices and uses on national forest land. Uses include everything from off-road travel and hiking to logging, mining and ski areas. The last time the plan was updated was in 1984.

The White River National Forest extends from Summit County west through Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Gunnison, Mesa, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties – and uses throughout the western region are equally varied, particularly in the economic and recreation venues.

While Summit County’s concerns center around recreation, the ski industry and protecting the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, farther west, issues include logging, mining, hunting, grazing and off-road vehicle use. Coming to a happy medium regarding forest operations has not been easy.

Nine alternatives were developed in 1999, and ultimately, Forest Service officials announced Alternative D is the agency’s the preferred option.

The “theme” of Alternative D is to protect the environment and enhance the diversity of plants and animals within it. And although it recognizes the impact, and subsequent needs, of humans on the forest, it proposes to eliminate from its management areas many trails and roads, limit access to some forest users and put forest preservation as its primary objective.

The Forest Plan includes a variety of sections, including a travel management plan that addresses bikes, horses, hikers, vehicles, snowmobiles and others in the forest. Other sections address grazing allotments, timber sales, mining and permitted recreation such as the ski area and outfitters.

“I’ll be most interested in seeing the interface areas because it would indicate whether there was potential for ski area expansion,” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “But I don’t see that we’re going to get a lot of questions answered. The part we’re most interested in is the Travel Management Plan, and that won’t come out for many, many months.”

He’s also interested in how the Forest Service will address water that flows from its land to users below. In recent years, Lindstrom said, the Forest Service said water that flows off national forest land belongs to the Forest Service. It could conceivably then opt to sell or lease it to down-stream users.

Hard-core conservationists said when it was announced that they liked Alternative D. The plan would close redundant trails in the forests, work to preserve natural areas, diversify the ecology through prescribed burns and tree-thinning and protect the remaining natural resources – everything the public has been clamoring for the past several years.

Ski area officials – many of whom have since left the area – said it was too restrictive. Officials at Breckenridge Ski Resort, for instance, later asked the Forest Service to consider extending the ski area boundaries from their northern limit at Peak 7 to Peak 5.

And non-motorized-user groups – the largest of which is represented perhaps by the Summit Fat Tire Society – were scrambling. They said they were amazed by the number of trails Alternative D proposed to close and were having trouble understanding details in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which was found to have many areas of conflicting information.

Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis outlined a plan of his own, which he called a “modified Alternative C,” in which human uses would given more equal priority with environmental uses.

Now, however, environmentalists are worried – and McInnis is hoping – the plan will have less of a conservation thrust than in the draft alternative identified three years ago. Others are concerned the Republican balance in Washington will hurt their efforts to preserve the wilds.

Most importantly to backcountry recreationalists, however, was that the Forest Service consider addressing the travel management portion of the Forest Plan as a separate item, as is usually done. That section of the plan was eventually pulled from the documentation to be addressed separately, although initially, Forest Service officials said they’d hoped both documents could be considered together and set precedent for other forest plans throughout the nation.

A lot has changed since the plan was last updated. Mountain biking – now a mainstay of the Colorado tourism industry – was a new sport in 1984. Snowboarding had yet to gain its popularity. The sheer number of people who recreate in the backcountry has increased. The reintroduction of lynx into the state was a glimmer in the eyes of state wildlife officials.

The list of trails that could be closed in the Dillon Ranger District is six pages long, and includes a portion of the Wheeler Trail that crosses the Ten Mile Range – a National Recreational Trail – the Spruce Creek Trail and numerous others near Soda Creek, in the Golden Horseshoe and around Rainbow Lakes. Alternative D even proposes the closure of the Frey Gulch trail to horses – on which an outfitter currently holds a Forest Service permit to conduct tours.

Citizens said they were worried about changes that could be made to wilderness and roadless areas in the national forest and to what extent the Forest Service might encourage logging operations.

Alarmed by the potential impacts of the proposals outlined in Alternative D, many began their fight.

Battle plans involved absorbing as much of the information provided as possible, getting people to write the forest supervisor to request more time to comment and separate the travel management plan from the rest of the Forest Plan, and to try to come to a “sensible center” between managing the trails the way they have been for 15 years – the status quo – and adequately addressing the needs of increasing numbers of forest users.

Since then, the Forest Service has allocated more time for citizens to consider the proposal.

And county goals, some of which were in the beginning stages, have also come to fruition. Summit County now has a backcountry zone, uses a voluntary Transfer of Development Rights program to move density out of the backcountry and has implemented the Joint Upper Blue Master Plan that guides development as the valley approaches buildout. Citizens – even those as polar as snowmobilers and cross-country skiers – have banded together to work out their differences on such things as trailheads, parking, trash, noise and trail use.

Management is vital, as well, Rossetter said, because one day, “We’ll come to the day and place where a capacity cap will be implemented on roads, trails and rivers. We need to take the time to figure out what we can live with. We need to work on that together.”

Once details of the plan are unveiled, other plans that have sat on the back burner will be addressed anew. Among them is the Blue River Stewardship plan, which will specifically address management along the Ten Mile Range. Included in that are possible trail closures, logging to create fire breaks and improve the health of the forest and campground improvements.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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