Water, lynx standards relaxed in National Forest
SUMMIT COUNTY – White River National Forest officials are preparing to eliminate water quality standards relative to streamflows and a lynx rule from the recently approved forest plan.The move comes with scant public notice and a short 15-day comment period ending today. The lynx rule in question requires the Forest Service to make broad-scale assessments of impacts to lynx habitat when considering ski area projects, forest health treatments and other activities on the 2.3-million acre forest that stretches from Summit County to Glenwood Springs.The changes ordered by U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources David P. Tenny override all previous decisions made on the plan, including some in some key areas that were at the heart of a complex appeals process.The White River National Forest formally adopted the plan in June 2002, but the appeals were ultimately resolved by Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth late last year.Tenny’s decision came a few months after the Denver law firm Arnold & Porter lobbied him on behalf of Vail Resorts, the owner of the Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek ski resorts on the White River.”After the chief’s decisions, we had a few conversations with Tenny,” said Harris Sherman of Arnold & Porter. “We highlighted the key points of Vail’s appeal, particularly as it pertained to water standards. We did ask him to look at the appeal carefully,” Sherman said. “Many of those standards are impossible to comply with, as we pointed out in our appeal,” he said.Intended to guide land use decisions for the next 15 years, the White River National Forest Plan was five years in the making and featured contentious discussion over the general direction the Forest Service should take. Conservation advocates lined up on one side, urging restrictions on some human activities to help manage the forest for long-term natural resource sustainability, while snowmobilers, the ski and timber industries and other interest groups encouraged the agency to live up to its multiple-use management mandate.Tenny questioned the validity of the White River National Forest Plan’s lynx regulations. He said there is no evidence of lynx actually living in the planning area and ordered the forest to adopt the provisions of a regional lynx plan currently under development – a move that will weaken protection for the threatened wild cats, critics of the proposed changes said.Tenny said several water standards in the plan are unrealistic and could conflict with state law and with other Forest Service policies.Planners at the White River headquarters in Glenwood Springs downplayed the changes as regulatory housekeeping. Planner Melany Glossa said the changes are mainly aimed at removing redundant direction.”Some of the water standards are already covered under Forest Service direction,” Glossa said. Glossa said regional Forest Service planners are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the lynx management issues raised by Tenny’s administrative order. “He wanted a rational basis to apply lynx standards and guidelines,” Glossa said.Some of the agency’s water experts said the standards are the core of the White River National Forest’s best-management practices, enabling experts to gauge the impacts of various projects against the standards of the federal Clean Water Act. Tenny’s order affects 10 water standards in all, most aimed at ensuring that water quality and aquatic habitat are maintained or improved.Both the water rules and the lynx standard were at issue in the April 2002 appeal of the White River plan filed by Vail Resorts, whose attorneys urged the Forest Service to drop or dilute the rules, claiming their adoption would “prohibit many actions … in the public interest.”The water and riparian standards … are of significant concern to Vail Resorts. If applied literally, they have the potential to dramatically hinder or obstruct the diversion of water for snowmaking, complicate the routine exercise of water rights and call into question other long-standing uses of water rights that are authorized by existing state and federal law,” resort company attorneys wrote in their appeal.Ski area activities including snowmaking, lift construction and road and trail maintenance are among the projects that can lead to degradation of water quality fish habitat. Rocky Smith, of the Forest Service watchdog group Colorado Wild, said the changes would weaken overall natural resource protection on the forest.He said the Tenny ruling is disappointing but not surprising. Within the last five years, forest plan decisions and appeals of the Arapaho-Roosevelt, the Routt and the Rio Grande national forest plans were also ultimately resolved at the political level.Smith said dropping some of the water regulations would make it more difficult for the Forest Service to protect water quality and fish habitat.”It’s going to make it harder for them to say, ‘Hey, we need some water in this stream,'” Smith said.The changes in lynx management also mean less protection for the threatened cats, Smith said, explaining that the proposed regional standards are weaker than the provisions in the White River forest plan.Regional EPA officials also said they will scrutinize the latest White River changes and offer comments. “We will be commenting on the lynx,” said Brad Crowder, a regional EPA analyst. Crowder said the EPA will examine whether the planned changes mesh with the tenets of a multi-agency lynx conservation plan put in place when lynx were federally listed as a threatened species in 2000. As spelled out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the decision to assign the wild cat to the threatened species roster was based in large part on inadequate management direction on National Forest lands.”They decided the one thing that threatens lynx is lack of management direction,” Crowder said. “Then they go to weaken the standards. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If you had good direction in the plan, why weaken it?”Bob Berwyn can be reached at email@example.com.
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