Newsmaker: Rick Newton is man-on-the-spot for local forest decisions
December 28, 2005
SUMMIT COUNTY – It’s probably not surprising that, in a place where almost 80 percent of the land is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, a high percentage of news stories in any given year touch on land management issues. But during 2005, that emphasis seemed even more pronounced than usual. Public attention focused intensely on the mountain pine beetle epidemic that will probably change the look and feel of the local landscape for decades to come. Much of that change will occur within our life span, an unusually short time frame for such a large-scale a natural ecological process. Many of the recreational facilities that are such an important part of Summit County’s economy are also administered by the Forest Service, from ski areas to campgrounds, wilderness areas and all the trail systems.The Forest Service is a vast bureaucracy, with multiple layers of jurisdiction, but when it comes down to making site-specific decisions in Summit County, the responsibility often rests with Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton, the man on the spot who is also one of the Summit Daily’s top two newsmakers of the year.Although 2005 didn’t stand out of the ordinary for Newton, he acknowledged that the Forest Service was often under the magnifying glass, for better or worse, and discussed some of the year’s hot topics in a year-end interview.”We’re always involved in a lot of things that affect the community in a lot of ways. The people here are passionate about public lands,” said the trim, energetic 48-year-old wildlife ecologist.Newton moved out West in the mid-1980s after grad school and started working seasonally for the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest, where the agency was embroiled in a heated controversy over the spotted owl. In 2000, Newton became district ranger in the neighboring Leadville district. He took over leadership in the Dillon district in October 2003, heading up a staff of about 18 people with an annual budget of about $1 million.
Beetle battleHigh on the list of issues this past year was the mountain pine beetle infestation sweeping through local lodgepole forests.”We’re trying to pursue some sort of strategy to react to it,” Newton said. “To me, the most important thing for the public to understand is that this is a natural process. Mountain pine beetle is one of three key ingredients in the succession of lodgepole pine forests, although we’re seeing the beetles attack a little more aggressively, and at higher elevations than in the past.”We need to live with it,” he added. “It’s not something we can manage away. We need to focus on protecting key values, including property, watersheds and recreation.”The Forest Service is playing with a hand that was dealt more than a 100 years ago, when logging by pioneers and miners in the area set the stage for the current lodgepole monoculture – vast areas of even-aged stands of trees that are now near the end of their life span and susceptible to insect infestation. In addition to protecting residential areas, recreational facilities and watersheds, Newton’s goal is to add different tree species back into the forest mix, including aspen, spruce and fir, and to make sure different age classes are represented, which would lessen the impacts of the next pine beetle cycle, sure to hit 10, 20 or 30 years from now.Considering the scale of the current beetle outbreak, the biggest stumbling block in 2005 was fiscal, as the Forest Service budget didn’t leave much leeway for aggressive treatments. A Lower Blue forest health plan, for example, was put on hold for the entire year due to budget constraints, Newton said, adding that the financial picture is looking better for 2006. Forest feesThe Forest Service was also in the spotlight as recreation managers sought to develop and implement a new management plan for the popular camping and day-use facilities at Green Mountain Reservoir, at the north end of Summit County, near Heeney.”It was a little more contentious than I would have liked,” Newton conceded. “We did some things that played into people’s concerns,” he said, adding that the user demographics at Green Mountain Reservoir may have helped fuel the fire of controversy.
Newton characterized the pay-to-play issue as being partly an East vs. West battle.”It’s a rural western issue. Out here, there’s been a long-standing tradition of access to public lands. But a lot of our public land now is urban-based, and they’re saying, through Congress, they’re not so concerned about paying as you go,” Newton said. As evidence, he cited Congressional testimony from a series of public hearings on recreational fees. “It’s a hard change for the folks who are used to the old way,” he said. “It’s an ongoing debate. As a society, the jury is still out of that’s the way we want to go.”Newton pointed out that there are only two pay-to-play sites in Summit County: Green Mountain Reservoir and Vail Pass (in winter). The majority of trailheads and other recreational areas are still free, and there are no plans to add new fee areas locally, at least in the immediate future. At Green Mountain Reservoir, the bottom line for Newton is public health and safety, as increased visitation led to user conflicts and a general degradation of the area.”I can’t be a responsible manager and ignore safety and resource issues, including employee safety. It’s hard to stomach that that there are people who say nothing is needed out there,” Newton said, addressing those interest groups who would prefer to see the Green Mountain area remain unchanged. Ski area expansionThe question of ski area management in Summit County has always been a hot button issue, long before Newton arrived, and it probably won’t change any time soon. But the Forest Service added fuel to the fire when it first approved, then withdrew that approval, for a new lift to the top of Peak 8 at Breckenridge. A small but vocal group of critics cried foul, hoping to preserve the Peak 8 bowls as hike-to terrain, while the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers also questioned the approval process, citing concerns (later alleviated) about potential impacts to wetlands.
“We got tripped up in our own procedural issues,” Newton said, adding that the agency is strengthening its processes as a result of the Peak 8 controversy. For one thing, the Forest Service plans to add staff to the winter sports program, he said.In the end, the new lift was built in record time and opened early, to the delight of skiers and the resort.”The ski area is ecstatic about it, especially with the snow safety concerns in Horseshoe Bowl,” Newton said, referring to an early season avalanche cycle that stripped most of the snow out of the popular terrain around the T-bar. Newton emphasized the partnership between the Forest Service and the ski industry.”We’ve come a long way in working with the industry. They’re great partners and they’re committed to the community, more so than in years past,” he said.And while there are sure to be battles over future resort plans, Newton said the general tone is set.”How much? How big? That was the forest plan debate,” he said, explaining that the revised White River plan sets the tone for what will happen at Summit County’s four ski areas in the coming years. “Now we’re into the nitty-gritty,” he said. “How to expand into some of those areas in the most environmentally sensitive way. Not if, but when and how to expand into some of those areas.”That plan anticipates significant growth in skier visits, a trend that has been confirmed just in the past few seasons, according to Newton. In general, the Forest Service is looking at holding master plan discussions with the resorts that will address areas allocated for skiing under the forest plan. That includes Peak 6 at Breckenridge and parts of Independence Mountain at Keystone, where a small-scale proposal for cat skiing is already under consideration.”We are going to have some discussion of what it might mean to move into some of those other areas,” Newton said. “Stay tuned.”