McInnis ideas big hit with Forest Service
It wasn’t by a knockout punch.It may be more of a split decision.Still, in the battle with environmentalists over the future of the White River National Forest, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis scored enough points to claim something of a victory, and environmentalists were largely conceding defeat.While some things didn’t go McInnis’ way in the final plan, it appears to incorporate many of the changes he pushed following the 1999 release of a draft plan.McInnis, R-Grand Junction, had criticized that plan for putting too much emphasis on forest conservation and not enough on human uses. In an unprecedented move for a congressman, he submitted a detailed set of comments that essentially became a draft forest plan of his own.He said in a statement Tuesday that he was glad to see so many aspects of his plan included in the Forest Service’s final plan.”It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it represents real progress,” McInnis said of that final plan.Environmentalists view the final plan as anything but progress.While they speak with gratitude about a few differences between the draft and final plans, including the addition of a major new wilderness area at Red Table Mountain/Gypsum Creek, they believe that the final plan “steps back in key areas from the Forest Service’s draft plan,” according to Jamey Fidel of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.He said that draft plan would have protected “the long-term health of some of Colorado’s most important ecosystems.”Said Richard Compton of the Carbondale-based White River Conservation Project, “The Forest Service had a chance to make the White River the greatest wild place south of Yellowstone. They blew it.”McInnis is a native of Glenwood Springs, where the WRNF is headquartered, and he is the home congressman for the forest. In addition, he chairs the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.WRNF Supervisor Martha Ketelle said of the “blended plan” he offered, “I would characterize it as the most complete comments that we received.”His plan included “a full suite of management direction,” she said.In its final plan, the Forest Service specifically noted six primary issues McInnis raised in the draft plan, and then lists how the Forest Service responded. Each response at least partly accedes to McInnis’ requests.Water was the most hotly disputed concern for McInnis. The Forest Service had proposed requiring bypass flows or other measures to protect 10 percent of forest streams. McInnis, who has been highly vocal on Colorado water issues since his days as a member of the state House of Representatives, claimed that the federal government should not be able to circumvent state water laws.The final language drops the 10 percent reference and commits to working with the state on the water issues.While McInnis is pleased by that commitment, he said it still doesn’t go far enough. He said the water language is vague and leaves him “fundamentally uneasy,” and he will be watching the Forest Service closely on the bypass flows question.But from the perspective of an advocate for bypass flows, McInnis has little to worry about. Melinda Kassen, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado water project director, said the message is clear that there is little expectation of bypass flows being required.While the Forest Service continues to talk about stream protection, the removal of the 10 percent target leaves no objective criteria for evaluating how it is doing, she added.”It walks back from any firm commitments ,” she said.Other major issues raised by McInnis include:-Skiing. McInnis had objected to the draft proposal to limit any expansion to lands already under permit. The final plan allows for more expansion for some ski areas. Fidel characterized the change as giving in to pressure from the ski industry and “industry-backed politicians. “-Travel management. The final plan calls for linked roads and trails, which McInnis and forest travel advocates said improve the recreational experience. Ketelle said the Forest Service also, at McInnis’ request, postponed the final travel management plan so it was no longer occurring at the same time the forest plan was being finalized, which had been creating some confusion.-Wilderness. McInnis proposed eight specific wilderness areas to Congress. The Forest Service recommended five of those areas. It did not recommend such protection for Deep Creek, which is the subject of a wilderness bill he has introduced in Congress. Also, the proposed Red Table Mountain/Gypsum Creek wilderness area was not among his eight proposed areas, and one of his staff members recently expressed concern over rumors that it might be included in the final plan.McInnis also persuaded the Forest Service to increase winter range for elk and other wildlife, and to create intermix management area directions for lands where issues cross public and private lands.McInnis raised a concern Tuesday over the implications of language dealing with protecting critical habitat for the Canada lynx. He fears the impact of that language, and that it could trump other forest management decisions.By and large, though, he seemed pleased at what he saw in the new plan.”At first blush, it appears that the Forest Service has reasonably balanced the right of this generation to experience and enjoy this forest with the imperative that it is protected for those that come after us,” he said.Calling the plan he submitted “a roadmap to common ground and consensus,” he said it appears that the Forest Service was “substantially persuaded by the merits of our roadmap.”But environmentalists had drafted their own draft plan, and it was even more conservation-oriented than the Forest Service’s preferred draft plan, which was known as Alternative D. As a result, they viewed Alternative D as a balanced compromise, Fidel said.Environmentalists expressed particular concern about the amount of logging that could occur under the final plan, including in roadless areas. Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund, vowed that conservationists would “fight to protect” the forest from objectionable logging proposals, and said that forest officials who pursue those projects are “buying themselves a world of trouble.”But Zukoski, who has represented groups filing appeals of other Colorado forest plans, wasn’t ready Tuesday to promise any similar such actions on the WRNF plan.”You’ve got six or eight inches of material to weigh through and 90 days to file something. We’re going to look it over and make up our minds,” he said.Fidel said he hopes the Forest Service has complied with the law in devising its final plan, but the Aspen Wilderness Workshop will look at it carefully to determine if any appeals are warranted.Despite his criticisms of the plan, he still credited WRNF employees for their years of work leading to it.”We’re definitely appreciative of the effort that went into this process … and on that level, they are to be commended,” he said.
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