ASPEN, Colo. A study that could result in the closure of campgrounds and other facilities in the country's national forests will be opened to greater public scrutiny, the U.S. Forest Service vowed Friday.The agency won't make any decisions on closures for the next two months so an internal "review team" can assess how to broaden citizen involvement in the process, according to Joel Holtrop, a deputy chief of the Forest Service. The review committee will make recommendations April 2.Holtrop acknowledged the review team was organized in response to increased public and media attention to the effort.Conservation groups have warned the agency's Recreation Sites Facility Master Plan process will lead to closures of campgrounds, historic sites and other recreation amenities without public input. The closures could affect the White River National Forest, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley."There are people very concerned in numerous areas," said Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, based in Norwood. He said concerns over the process have spread to some members of Congress, and that has caught the attention of Forest Service officials."Obviously, they're under some pressure, some heat from Congress," Funkhouser said.Holtrop stressed multiple times in a briefing for reporters Friday that the facilities master plan isn't designed with quotas in mind for closure of facilities. The agency isn't trying to cut a specific amount from its budget, he claimed.Instead, the plan is meant to determine what the public wants and desires when it visits national forests and grasslands, and to determine how facilities stack up, Holtrop said.Locally, the Recreation Sites Facility Master Plan has been defended by agency officials as good business. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook recently compared it to a strategic plan carried out by a business.Westbrook said last month the plan will not result in the closure of any campgrounds in the Aspen-Sopris District. He initially decided to close Portal Campground up Lincoln Creek, east of Aspen. But public response convinced him to reverse his decision last year.Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said any valley resident concerned about national forests should pay attention to the facilities master plan process even if closures aren't a threat in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.He believes the process was intentionally "under the radar" of the public because it is part of a broader effort to shrink the government. The Forest Service has been under increasing pressure to close facilities, charge fees and outsource administration, he said.Shoemaker said it is "horse puckey" for Holtrop to say the master plan process isn't designed to determine which facilities to close. It is encouraging the Forest Service is vowing to broaden public participation. However, it's one thing for the agency to hold public hearings, he said. It's another for the agency to listen."It's hard to be cynical enough these days, frankly," Shoemaker said.Funkhouser said the Forest Service's plans at individual forests have largely been kept under wraps. What has leaked out has been "pretty ugly" because of the number of closures, he said. No proposal for the White River National Forest has been released yet.Like Shoemaker, Funkhouser questioned if public participation will cure the problems that concern him. The root of the problem is too much funding gets absorbed by management and administration of the Forest Service before its gets to operations of facilities."The problem is the bureaucracy," he said.Scott Condon's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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