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White River releases `balanced’ plan

Dennis Webb

Heeding widespread and wide-ranging public comments, the White River National Forest unveiled a new management plan Tuesday that’s less restrictive of human uses than it had previously proposed.Making concessions in such areas as ski area expansion and river flow restrictions, the measure is a “balanced alternative” that responds to the input provided since the conservation-oriented “Alternative D” draft plan was released almost three years ago, WRNF Supervisor Martha Ketelle said in introducing the plan.”It allows for a range of uses and development opportunities, some more so than Alternative D,” Ketelle said.At the same time, the measure also incorporates some more environmentally minded measures than “D” intended, including a major new wilderness addition at Red Table Mountain and Gypsum Creek, and a ban on any summer travel off roads and trails by motorized users and mountain bikers.”I think there are significant changes between” the draft and final plans, said Ketelle.She said the changes included increased dispersed recreation opportunities, “but we’ve kept those expanded opportunities within the threshold that protects the health of the environment as well.”Alternative D proposed putting a higher emphasis on protecting the forest’s physical and biological uses than on human uses. More than 14,000 public comments were submitted in responseto it, with some pressing for a better balance between conservation and those human uses.The final plan selected, called Alternative K, appears to somewhat respond to the pro-human-use push.”I chose Alternative K because it provides a wide variety of recreation opportunities and forest uses while promoting ecosystem health,” said Rick Cables, regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region.The measure was generally praised by one of the draft measure’s sharpest critics, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction.”We’re still evaluating the fine print, but there’s no question that the final product is a marked and meaningful improvement over the preferred alternative,” he said in a prepared statement.Environmentalists, speaking in a conference call, lamented what they saw as retreats from several conservation aspects of Alternative D.”We believe that there were major opportunities that were lost in the final plan,” said Jamey Fidel of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.Among some of the key decisions in the final plan:-While Alternative D would have allowed no ski area expansions beyond current permit areas, the final plan will allow for some expansions, particularly in resorts that are closer to the high skier population base on the Front Range. As many as 51,519 acres would be allocated for existing and potential ski area development, compared to about 43,000 under Alternative D. However, no new ski areas would be allowed.-Motorized and mechanized travel will be limited to designated travel routes in the summer. Road reconstruction and maintenance will be emphasized over construction of new roads. Conversion of roads to trails, or full decommissioning of roads that are no longer needed, will be a priority. Construction of new roads may occur but the use of temporary roads will be stressed. Redundant roads, such as those running parallel to each other, will be reduced, and loop systems will be emphasized.Off-trail snowmobile use will still be allowed, but defined off-trail “play areas” are instituted in some areas, such as the Hagerman Pass area. Snowmobile use is restricted less than would have been the case under the draft plan.While the forest plan sets broad parameters for travel management, the details still must be worked out in a separate travel plan currently under development.

The final plan abandons a draft plan proposal for the Forest Service to use its permitting authority to protect 10 percent of streams through such means as requiring bypass flows. Instead, as sought by McInnis, the plan will call for a more collaborative approach that would include working with Colorado’s water laws.”We believe that the forest plan language on water will enable us to protect aquatic ecosystems,” said Ketelle.-The plan would provide for 82,000 acres of new wilderness, if Congress chooses to designate it. That’s up from 47,000 acres in the draft plan, largely due to the addition of the 50,000-acre Red Table Mountain/Gypsum Creek addition. It also amounts to 28 percent of the total roadless areas the Forest Service considers capable of, and available for, wilderness designation.Other proposed wilderness includes a new area, Assignation Ridge near Carbondale, and additions to other existing wilderness areas. Wilderness designation is up to Congress, but meanwhile, the Forest Service will manage proposed areas as if they were wilderness, which would mean restrictions including no motorized uses or mountain biking.-Altogether, 640,000 acres of roadless areas are identified. Besides the 82,000 the Forest Service proposes for wilderness designation, another 122,500 would be generally off-limits to motorized uses.The rest, some 400,000 acres, remains open for logging and road-building. Environmentalists note that these lands would have been off-limits if the Clinton administration roadless initiative had not been rescinded by the Bush administration.Environmentalists also say the new plan calls for a 40 percent increase in expected logging levels over the draft plan, which itself was one of the more aggressive draft alternatives considered when it came to logging.Ketelle said the WRNF’s roadless approach is consistent with the interim roadless direction handed down from the national Forest Service chief.-The Forest Service had initially conducted ecosystem-level analysis of the population viabilities of plant and animals species on the forest. However, in response to concerns with forest plans elsewhere since release of the draft plan, it evaluated 350 specific species for problems such as population and habitat decline.As a result, it has raised concern over the viability of 28 species. They include plants such as the Leadville milkvetch and DeBeque phacelia; mammals such as the Canada lynx, wolverine and two varieties of bats; aquatic species such as the humpback chub and western boreal toad; and birds such as the sage grouse.-In response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing the lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the plan seeks to manage habitat to conserve lynx. It also creates connected habitats to allow for migration of carnivores and other species. In addition, winter activities such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in new areas will be evaluated to determine if they would harm lynx by packing down trails, letting other predators compete with the lynx. Lynx otherwise have an advantage because they can travel through soft snow with their snowshoe-like paws.-Livestock grazing will continue on much of the forest, where 21 percent is off-limits to the practice. However, Ketelle plans to decide later what to do with the 51 grazing allotments, out of a total of 163, that are currently vacated. The vacated allotments reflect falling livestock prices and conversion of some ranch lands to residential use. Closing them is one option.The forest plan is being instituted amid budget cutbacks for national forests. Ketelle said she isn’t expecting more money for enforcement purposes. She said the WRNF has the funds needed to erect signs to mark some of the changing land uses, and also is counting on a public awareness campaign. “Hopefully education will be a large component of how we change people’s behavior and where they go,” she said.Asked whether she considers the new plan precedent-setting, Ketelle said, “Forest plans don’t make policy but they deal with policy that exists. I think if there’s a uniqueness about this forest plan it’s that it is dealing with a lot of issues that are at the forefront of public lands management.”Issues such as lynx management and species viability came along as the WRNF was drafting its plan, and it decided to address them now rather than amend the plan later, she said.The plan notes that the counties that are home to the WRNF are expected to continue to boom in population over the 10- to 15-year life of the new plan. Ketelle said she would like to think the forest then will be “as healthy and diverse as today,” while being able to accommodate more visitors.”I know they’re coming and I hope we can do that.”She said there has been little internal dissent within the Forest Service during the process leading to the issuance of the final plan.”There has been a lot of support for this plan, all the way up and down the agency.”Now, she said, “I really look forward to reading the papers in the next couple of weeks and see what people do think of it.”


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