Forests burning, but forest plan not on back burner
Steve Sherwood, deputy supervisor for the White River National Forest, offered an executive summary of the new forest plan Tuesday to the Western Valley Mayors.
The plan was released June 4, but, as Sherwood noted, has been largely overlooked because of the numerous fires burning in the area.
The meeting drew mayors from Glenwood Springs, New Castle and Silt, as well as other governmental and community members.
“We play a key role in the economic development of this area, and we are keenly aware of this,” said Sherwood.
Wilderness and wild and scenic river designations, timber, ski area allocation, livestock grazing, special interest areas and watershed health are areas of the plan that will directly affect Garfield County, said Sherwood.
Wildlife habitat and forest access affect all areas of the forest, but Sherwood didn’t go into detail about specifics relating to Garfield County.
While no new wilderness areas are proposed in Garfield County, the forest plan proposes adding wilderness acreage near Dome Peak (613 acres), north of Sweetwater Lake (739 acres), and near Hack Lake (61 acres).
Six river segments in the forest are being recommended for wild and scenic designation. Three stretches of river are under consideration for special designation in Garfield County, including a four-mile stretch of the Colorado River from Dotsero to the Shoshone Dam, Deep Creek, and the section of the South Fork of the White River that runs from Budge’s Resort to Rio Blanco County.
Special interest areas identified include 990 acres in Dead Horse Creek, which drains into Hanging Lake; 4,700 acres of Mitchell Creek, which is home to native cutthroat trout; and a portion of Main Elk Creek, which is valued for its primitive state and is also home to native Colorado River cutthroat populations and a stand of lodgepole pine.
Under the new plan, no new ski areas are proposed. An area south of Rifle was in the original forest plan, “but that’s off the table,” said Sherwood.
The plan allows for a total of 41,519 acres of expansion to existing ski areas, including Sunlight Mountain Resort.
Ranching is still a way of life in Garfield County. Livestock grazing will continue in the forest. Of the 163 allotments, 51, or 31 percent, are vacant. Vacant allotments will be assessed in a site-specific decision related to the plan, he said.
Watershed health, water rights, and maintaining minimum river flows are a priority in the plan. “It’s estimated that 75 percent of the West’s water falls on national forests,” said Sherwood. The Forest Service will continue to work with water rights holders and aim at maintaining a balance between recreation, agricultural and other water uses.
County Commissioner John Martin urged Sherwood to tell forest officials that all of the governmental entities should work together and with the private sector in finding common ground for managing forest lands.
“There are a lot of rules, and no manpower and budget to carry them out,” said Martin. Working together is necessary in creating what’s best for everyone.
The plan remains in the appeals process until early September, or 90 days from the date of release, which was June 4.
Sherwood also provided an update on the Coal Seam Fire, which began on June 8, and destroyed dozens of Glenwood-area homes. It continues to burn on the Flat Tops and is not fully contained on the north end. In some areas, the fire will be beneficial to ecosystems, while in other areas that burned hot, such as the South Canyon and Mitchell Creek areas, it may be years before the ground recovers, he said.
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