The real deal at the White River National Forest
It’s about time we had someone in charge at the White River National Forest who actually took the time to understand the economics and ecology of this place and made decisions that reflect those needs.
Scott Fitzwilliams, now in his sixth year as the White River National Forest Supervisor, is that person.
Fitzwilliams was most recently in the news for his decision to drastically reduce the available acreage for oil and gas drilling in the forest, including 61,000 acres with high potential for energy development in the Thompson Divide.
He and his team deserve kudos for weighing the Thompson Divide’s ecological and economic value and factoring in the community’s desire to protect it before deciding that it’s not OK to lease any more for energy development. That’s not to say energy companies are plumb out of luck. In fact, nearly 200,000 acres in the White River National Forest with high potential remain open for leasing.
“My draft decision places an emphasis on conserving the roadless character, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities of the White River National Forest while providing oil and gas development opportunities with a focus on lands that have proven to be productive in the past 10-15 years,” Fitzwilliams wrote in the Dec. 14 Record of Decision on oil and gas leasing.
He goes on to call the White River National Forest “a crown jewel of our national public land system.” And he’s right.
The 1.4 million-acre White River supports a robust energy economy from Silt to DeBeque and Rifle to Rangely. The crown jewels of Colorado skiing, Aspen and Vail and 10 other ski resorts, draw more than half of the 12 million people each year who visit the White River. Ranchers in every major drainage of the forest rely on National Forest lands to graze their herds during the summer. Communities like Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Eagle and Frisco are home to small businesses that rely on year-round recreational opportunities in the White River.
There is a heck of a lot going on in the White River National Forest, and Fitzwilliams recognizes that. He is managing the forest for the forest’s sake, and for ours.
If you’re shaking your head in doubt or dismay, consider the Travel Management Plan that was released in 2011. It was the first forest-wide plan to come out under Fitzwilliams’ direction. It drew ire from some motorized recreationists and mountain bikers because it closed down 692 miles of “bandit” trails and another 519 miles of roads and trails that had been previously open. The plan, which had been in the works long before Fitzwilliams took over, also permanently opens up 225 miles of those “bandit” trails and gives the motorized community access to areas that environmental groups would rather preserve for quiet recreation.
Everyone had something to complain about in that Travel Management Plan, which probably means it was good for the forest, which is what really matters.
Managing travel and energy development are just a few of the things Scott Fitzwilliams is doing right. He and his team at the White River National Forest have consistently made a number of decisions, large and small, that are good for the forest and for our economies.
In a 2009 Aspen Times Weekly story introducing our then-new forest supervisor, Fitzwilliams promised to manage the forest with a “restorative philosophy” that had taken hold throughout the agency. He also vowed not to get bogged down in the never-ending fights among conservationists, recreational groups and extractive industries.
“To me, the conservation challenge of the next century is not should we make it wilderness or not, or should we lease it [for natural gas development] or not, or should this little area be open to ATVs,” he told the Times. “The battle is how are we going to collaboratively grow and prosper.”
From what I can tell, he’s doing just that, and making us all think about how the forest that surrounds us should be managed.
Allyn Harvey’s column for the Post Independent appears on the third Thursday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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