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A new plan for White River

Cliff Thompson

For the stakeholders in the forest, ski areas, water users, wildlife managers, conservationists, public safety officers and wilderness advocates, however, the plan, released Tuesday, is a point of contention, the archetype, perhaps, for forest plans across Colorado and the rest of the country.

The new, controversial plan – which makes habitat preservation and environmental protection a priority and recommends creation of two wilderness areas and five scenic rivers – was the subject of 14,000 public comments, most of them angry, when the draft plan was released three years ago. Release of the final plan promises to rekindle the debate.

“All forest plans are controversial,” said Regional Forester Rick Cables. “People today are more engaged.”

Forest plans were mandated by the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which grew out of public outrage over timber clear-cutting on the Monongehela National Forest in Ohio and elsewhere in the nation during the 1970s. The act requires regular management plans for individual forests.

Among the items it addresses are forest health, economic issues affecting the forest, transportation, wilderness, archeological, water, and ecosystem management issues.

In its preliminary form, unveiled during the summer of 1999, the plan’s multiple alternatives were roundly assailed by both environmentalists and industry groups, as well as elected officials ranging from county commissioners to U.S. congressmen. The preferred alternative presented limitations on motorized travel, ski-area expansion and management based on ecosystem functions.

The new plan, a revision of the first-ever White River Forest plan of 1984, is a master plan for the forest reflecting changing uses of the forest away from a source of raw materials and jobs and toward a recreational playground studded with world-class ski areas and golf courses, rapidly growing communities – all connected with and instant access from Interstate 70. Last year the forest drew 8.4 million visitors.

Jobs and raw materials are at stake, however. Energy companies want to explore parts of the forest for oil and gas, and the logging and ranching industries will still be a part of forest activities.

“Forest plans are documents that address complex issues,” said Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, perhaps acknowledging the compromises that made the plan. “I will not pretend that this plan will answer everyone’s concerns and will be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I believe we have a plan most people can support – even if we aren’t able to address 100 percent of their concerns.”

Some of the hottest buttons in this heavily politicized plan include:

– Provisions that close the entire forest to off-road motorized use.

– Recommended creation of 82,000 acres in two new wilderness areas – 50,000 acres at Red Table Mountain south of Gypsum and 12,000 acres at Assignation Ridge west of the Maroon Bells Wilderness, plus an additional 20,000 acres to the eight existing wilderness areas.

– New regulations that reduce the strength of federal minimum stream flow.

Summer off-road closures

This probably won’t have much affect in the 470,000 acres of White River National Forest in Eagle County, where summer travel already is restricted to existing roads.

About 6 percent of the forest, mostly in the Rifle area, used to allow off-road vehicle use. What will change, albeit slowly, is how off-road use is tolerated by the people using the forest, said Wendy Haskins, transportation planner for the Forest Service.

“It’s going to take a major enforcement effort,” said Holy District Ranger Cal Wettstein. “People need to understand the impacts of motorized and mechanized vehicle use. Mountain bikes are not as benign as some people like to think. Some of the worst erosion comes from fall-line mountain bike trails.”

By its own admission, the Forest Service has done a poor job of preventing off-road use by motorized and mechanized means because the agency does not have the staff to cover 2.3 million acres of forest.

Enforcement, however, probably won’t come from the Forest Service, an which saw its budget shrink slightly in 2002. Instead, Wettstein said, it will come from a change in culture.

“It will come from a combination of educating people and a change in attitudes,” he said.

There are hundreds of miles of illegal roads and thousands of miles of “social trails” in the forest, Wettstein said, and the Forest Service has begun a detailed travel management plan for 2,300 miles of roads.

Ski area boundaries

In Eagle County, Vail Mountain will have to drop some of its terrain in the Back Bowls, such as in Mushroom, Benchmark and Commando bowls while adding terrain in South Game Creek Bowl, which many skiers and snowboarders use to get to the town of Minturn.

That will allow additional development of the new area – but not without plenty of review. The change reduces the ski area’s boundaries by approximately 1,926 acres, from slightly more than 14,000 to 12,226.

At Beaver Creek, the McCoy Park area has been added to the ski area boundary, opening the door to its development as beginner and intermediate ski terrain. Another addition is the Stone Creek Valley, which connects the ski resort to Eagle-Vail.

The addition of McCoy Park, however, removes Mud Springs to the west from potential development.

The Forest Plan also allows both of Eagle County’s ski areas – Vail and Beaver Creek – to accommodate an increase in skiers on the slopes at one time to a combined 31,369. Growth of 8 percent in skier numbers is allowed for the two resorts by 2010.

The revised plan also outlines “aerial transportation corridors” between resorts, raising the spectre of ski areas connected by tramways, as some are in Switzerland and France.

Vail Resorts deferred comment Tuesday pending more study of the plan.

Wilderness

Additional wilderness in the forest is another indicator of the change in values of forest use. After all, formal wilderness designation requires an act of Congress.

For example, the Red Table Mountain area, at 50,000 acres, and Assignation Ridge, at 12,000 acres, bring a different, smaller and lower-elevation wilderness to the White River forest. Red Table is approximately half the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Most existing wildernesses are high-elevation “rock and ice” lands above timberline. Red Table, which tops out at 12,000 feet above sea level, has flanks covered with oak brush. Assignation Ridge tops out at 10,600 feet but starts at 7,000, the same elevation as Edwards.

Thirteen additional wilderness parcels will be considered for inclusion in the eight existing wilderness areas:

– 2,500 acres in the Flat Tops in four separate parcels: near Ripple Creek Pass; near Dome Peak; north of Sweetwater Lake; and Red Dirt Creek.

– 7,700 acres in the Holy Cross Wilderness in the Fryingpan River drainage at Woods Lake southwest of the Peter Estin Hut and Burnt Mountain southeast of the Gates Hut and at the headwaters of the Fryingpan River.

– 2,900 acres to Summit County’s Ptarmigan Wilderness, north of Silverthorne.

– 1,200 acres to the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, with a small parcel north of Vail on Bald Mountain and another small parcel near Piney Lake’s Meadow Creek.

– 3,000 acres to the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness in Pitkin County, near Independence Pass, and a parcel in the Hunter Creek Drainage.

– 1,500 acres to the Raggeds Wilderness above the Crystal Mining Camp south of the Maroon Bells, in Gunnison County.

If the recommended additional 82,000 acres of additional wilderness areas are added to the existing wilderness areas, there will be 836,519 acres of wilderness – or more than a third of the White River National Forest.

Eagle County’s new U.S. congressman, Democrat Mark Udall, was a little disappointed that more wilderness was not recommended in the plan

“He preferred more so there was adequate protection of wildlife, habitat and water resources,” said his spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco.

At least one environmentalist, however, seemed to embrace the revised plan.

“Overall, I like it,” said Currie Craven, advocate for Friends of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. “We’re very pleased with what happened in Summit County, and we’re amazed the Forest Service had the courage to stick with the Red Table proposal and Assignation Ridge.”

Wild and scenic

Five rivers were identified in the revised White River Forest plan for wild and scenic study:

– The North and South forks of the upper Crystal River.

– The South Fork of the White River upstream of Meeker.

– Deep Creek in Eagle and Garfield counties.

– Cross Creek in Eagle County, from Missouri Pass downstream to where it exits the Holy Cross Wilderness.

– Four miles of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, above the Shoshone Dam.

Streamflows

Federal reserved minimum stream-flows language, designed to maintain ecosystem health, proved to be one of the most controversial elements of revising the plan. The Forest Service, however, backed off from using language in its draft plan exerting federal water rights. Instead, the agency will cooperate with the state on managing the streamflows, reflecting the political pressure brought to bear on crafting the plan:

“Application of the following standards shall use collaboration with State and local governments and other interested parties, available tools, authorities and strategies that appropriately consider State law and the interests of holders of existing water rights to achieve desired conditions for aquatic and stream-based resources,” the revised plan states.

That language drew criticism from Trout Unlimited, however. In a press release, the group called the flow protection plan “misguided” because retreated from the draft plan’s protection of fisheries.

“The plan has a lot of nice language in it, but is has no enforceable standards,” said Melinda Kassen, Colorado Water Project Director for Trout Unlimited. “A forest plan is supposed to be an active management strategy to protect forest values. That kind of language make Trout Unlimited members nervous.”

The federal reserve water rights, meanwhile, drew strong criticism from U.S. Rep Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, who saw them as the government “taking” bypass water from adjudicated users downstream.

In a press release issued Tuesday, McInnis expressed displeasure at the “vague verbiage” in the forest plan.

“The vague language makes me fundamentally uneasy,” he said. “Needless to say, we’ll be watching very closely to make sure that the Forest Service’s lack of clarity on this score isn’t a reversal of its commitment not to impose bypass flows.”

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., weighed in with McInnis, saying he wanted to make sure the federal government did not expand its influence by requiring bypass flows.

Forest health

Fire suppression for the last 100 years has created a lack of diversity in vegetative types, as well as and a huge buildup of fuelwood, creating a significant potential for a catastrophic fires in local wildlands. A new approach to forest health will bring back more logging to area forests, to supplement the prescribed burning and other land management practices.

Selected clear cuts and thinning of stands that have been attacked by mountain pine beetles will help remove fuelwood, as well as create more diversity in vegetation. Young, growing trees are more resistant to insects – and to burning.

Nearly 70 percent of the lodgepole pines in the forest, however, are 80 to 130 years old. What will be cut and how it will be cut is being assessed throughout the forest, said Karl Mendonca, a timber management assistant with the Holy Cross Ranger District.

The new forest plan calls for annual harvests on 1,030 acres yielding 12 million board-feet of timber – enough for 800 2,000-square-foot homes. That timber harvest will be about 50 percent of the annual average on the White River forest for the last 50 years.

By contrast, in the rainy Oregon coastal forests with mature timber, yields of 60,000 board-feet per acre are common. Yields here average 20 percent of that – or 12,000 board-feet per acre.

Wildlife management

In the argot of the Forest Service, management of “indicator species,” or species whose survival reflects the health of the ecosystem, will get more attention under the new plan.

The 27 species of concern include plants, mammals, amphibians, fish and birds. Some, like the Sage Grouse, are rare; others, like the lynx, are endangered.

Managing these species requires an ecosystem approach requiring intact ecosystems. For the pygmy nuthatch, a bird, it means leaving dead snags for nesting sites; for boreal toads and leopard frogs, it means maintaining riparian habitat.

The indicator species include:

– Plants – Kotzebue grass-of-Parnassus; altai cottongrass; Porter Feathergrass; rockcress draba; Leadville Milkvetch; sun-loving meadowrue; sea pink; Colorado Tansy-aster; Harrington’s Beardtongue; DeBeque phacelia; and tundra buttercup.

– Mammals – wolverine; Canada lynx; fringed myotis bat; Townsend’s big-eared bat.

– Aquatic species – humpback chub; bonytail chub; razorback sucker; roundtail chub; Colorado pikeminnow; Colorado River cutthroat trout; western boreal toad; and the northern leopard frog.

– Birds – sage grouse; Brewer’s sparrow; Barrow’s goldeneye; and the pygmy nuthatch.

Other considerations

– A visitors center and museum will be built at Camp Hale, where 17,000 men of the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II.

– Continued growth on the Colorado’s Western Slope will continue to place pressure on public lands. Eagle County’s population, now at 41,000, is projected to reach 69,000 by 2020.

– Livestock grazing on the White River National Forest is declining as agriculture is replaced by real estate development. Right now, 51,000 sheep and 23,000 cattle graze on the forest, compared to nearly 40,000 cows and 170,000 sheep in 1940.


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