Forest Service official upholds Berlaimont approval, directs staff to flesh out wildlife issues
Objections hearing officer says Forest Service can sign off on road plan once eight specific issues are addressed
The U.S. Forest Service hearing officer who presided over a Jan. 7 hearing objections meeting has upheld the Berlaimont Estates access road approval.
But Tammy Angel, the Forest Service official who served as the objections hearing officer, also directed staff from the White River National Forest to flesh out its examination in eight specific areas before final action can proceed for the controversial project near Edwards.
Angel heard from 15 people unhappy with any paved access plan and from a single Berlaimont representative protesting the alignment of the proposed access road during the hearing held earlier this month. As a result of those comments, she issued a 37-page response that concluded many of the issues raised during the meeting had been adequately addressed in the Berlaimont Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. But Angel also cited the eight specific areas where the White River National Forest staff must provide addition rationale.
In a cover letter sent to the 16 objectors, Angel stated, “After the Forest Supervisor, Scott Fitzwilliams addresses these, he may sign the Record of Decision. This written response is not subject to further administrative review by the Forest Service or the United States Department of Agriculture.”
According to David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, staff will now answer the issues Angel specified in her response. He noted there is no specific deadline for that work to be completed. When the additional information is compiled and included in the record of decision, the Forest Service can finalize its Berlaimont ruling. Once the decision is finalized, it can be litigated.
“The reviewing officer noted the need for additional analysis and issued eight different instructions for White River National Forest staff to undertake, five of which directly relate to wildlife,” said Will Roush, the executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, following Angel’s announcement this week.
The Berlaimont Estates project is proposed for a 680-acre property that is located north of Interstate 70 in the Edwards area and surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property. The property owners — Petr Lukes and Jana Sobotova — have proposed subdividing the land into 19 parcels of 35 acres or more. Parcels of that size are exempt from county zoning review but the developers must access the site through U.S. Forest Service land, which set off the federal review process.
As noted in the Federal Register, Berlaimont Estates LLC applied for an easement to construct, improve, utilize and maintain road segments across the Forest Service lands in support of their desired development of their property. Specifically, the developers want to improve segments of the existing road and construct a new road across additional Forest Service lands in order to more directly access the northern portion of their property. The proposed improvements would include a paved asphalt road with a gravel shoulder, vehicle turnouts, retaining walls, traffic signs, guardrails, erosion control facilities and drainage facilities.
In late 2020, Fitzwilliams issued the final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Decision for the project. Citing the requirements of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Fitzwilliams said that a paved access to the property would be appropriate to provide reasonable use of the in-holding. His draft recommendation calls for paving Berry Creek Road to the Berlaimont Estates’ boundary.
As noted by the Wilderness Workshop, a wide range of advocates have raised concerns that the road would cut through some of the last best winter wildlife habitat in the Eagle Valley, reducing deer and elk populations that are already in decline.
In her decision, Angel issued instructions in three categories — National Environmental Policy Act issues; Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act/Federal Land Policy and Management Act issues and wildlife impact issues:
Unpaved alternative — Additional rationale will be required for the decision to dismiss the alternative of having an unpaved access road to Berlaimont. Forest Service staff was also told to describe “why a partially paved option was not considered in the final EIS.” Angel additionally stated the proposed access road will have a 20 MPH speed limit.
McCoy Park — If appropriate, the Forest Service study of impacts of the proposed McCoy Park project — which would add 250 new acres of lift-served ski terrain at Beaver Creek — can be included in the Berlaimont decision as part of the discussion of cumulative impacts to deer and elk habitat. “New information about the development may, or may not, change the way cumulative effects are currently evaluated,” Angle stated.
Road alignment — Additional safety information comparing Alternative 2, the road route selected in the final Forest Service decision, and Alternative 3, the developer’s preferred route, will be required. Angel also stated the safety issues should be “balanced with wildlife concerns.”
Similarly situated properties — Additional information will be required to address why the Tigiwon Road, Carbonate, and Piney River Ranch properties should not be included in the decision analysis.
Additional descriptions — More information will be required regarding ANILCA, NEPA, FLPMA, and how special use authorizations will be used for the road and for utilities.
Big game — Clear definition regarding the cumulative effects for big game and how it relates to Berlaimont, particularly with regard to continued development on private lands, will be required. Additionally Angel called for consideration of new information provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Lynx and trout — Additional review is required concerning impacts to lynx habitat and to clarify the current status of cutthroat trout.
Need for additional analysis — White River National Forest staff was instructed to review new information regarding deer and elk populations and determine if there is a need for additional analysis.