Forest Service publishes final Berlaimont decision
Action starts clock on 30-day deadline for Final Environmental Impact Statement regarding controversial development proposed north of Edwards
After years of focused local attention, crowded public hearings and spirited debate, the U.S. Forest Service has published its Final Environmental Impact Statement regarding the proposed Berlaimont Estates access road.
Publication of this Notice of Availability is an administrative step ahead of a final decision.
A Final Record of Decision can be signed 30 days after the Notice of Availability is published in the Federal Register. Friday’s publication sets that final decision date for Monday, Aug. 9.
There is a lot of final wording associated with the publication, but the latest action doesn’t actually signal the conclusion of the Berlaimont debate. Rather, it marks a transition point in the public battle — with action likely to unfold in courtrooms rather than meeting rooms as both Berlaimont developers and project opponents indicate they are considering their options for next steps.
The Berlaimont Estates proposal calls for dividing a 680-acre property located north of Interstate 70 in the Edwards area — an inholding surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property — 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 sets 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 Forest Service lands in support of the desired development of the property. Specifically, the Berlaimont developers want to improve segments of the existing road segments 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, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott 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 inholding. His draft recommendation calls for paving Berry Creek Road to the Berlaimont Estates’ boundary.
The final EIS also recommends the remainder of the paved access road to the site be built primarily on private property — a decision that drew criticism from the Berlaimont development team because it would require a steep road with seven switchbacks. Attorneys for the development team have objected to this road alternative.
“The Forest Service is poised to make a terrible decision,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop in a statement released Friday. Wilderness Workshop has been a vocal Berlaimont opponent.
Hart said Wilderness Workshop is “reviewing the analysis and contemplating next steps.”
“With wildlife populations in staggering decline due to increased development and recreation in critical winter range, this is not the time to abandon seasonal closures and pave sensitive habitat for more development,” Hart said. “This is the last thing wildlife populations need at the worst possible time.”
For years, Berlaimont opponents have raised concerns that a proposed paved 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 dramatic decline.
“Perhaps the biggest problem with this proposal, raised by nearly everyone who has engaged, is the impact it will have on the wildlife. Winter wildlife habitat is a limiting resource for deer and elk populations; habitat they need to survive Colorado’s coldest and snowiest months,” said Tim Wolf, a local hunter and small business owner.
Wolf noted that wildlife rely on areas where snow accumulations are low, where there may still be some forage.
“These populations are on the ropes because of the past decisions we’ve made — the choice we’ve made to prioritize development and recreation above habitat protection and restoration,” Wolf said. “We’ve got to accept the situation we’re in, to be accountable to one another and local wildlife to ensure our deer and elk populations persist. Now is the time to protect this habitat. To date, we haven’t been able to.”
Another often-cited concern related to the Berlaimont plan is its remote location and its wildfire vulnerability.
“The project will put more people and expensive homes in a fire-prone landscape at a time when it’s clear we can’t afford to protect our already built environment,” Hart said.
“We are in a 20-year drought, one of the two driest periods in the last 1,200 years. If a wildfire sparked near a new luxury Berlaimont home, firefighters, such as my own daughter-in-law, would likely be called to the remote site,” said retired biology teacher and longtime Eagle Valley resident Christie Hochtl.
“I would hate to see her lose her life saving a home that should have never been built in the first place,” Hochtl said.
Word for word
Other Berlaimont opponents expressed disappointment with the Forest Service’s final EIS, following an objection hearing held earlier this year that highlighted continued local opposition to the proposal.
“Public opposition to this project is extraordinary,” said longtime Eagle County resident Howard Leavitt. “Thousands commented and signed petitions opposing the project. Dozens of us took the time to review the final EIS in detail and to file formal objections. Even senior Forest Service officials noted several flaws in the analysis and recommended revisiting several issues.”
“But, the final EIS published Friday was, literally, the same final EIS released before the objection period — word for word,” Leavitt continued. “No changes were made based on our objections. The indifference shown toward protecting this critical habitat and the thousands of citizens’ comments and objections is extremely disappointing and disheartening.”
While the Forest Service’s final EIS allows for a paved road to the Berlaimont property, the developers are also unhappy with the decision.
“The Forest Service is being pressured to use its duty under federal law to provide access for reasonable development of private lands to prevent reasonable development of the private lands,” said Kristen Kenney Williams, a spokesperson for the Berlaimont development team. “That is 100% the opposite of the purpose of that federal law.”
Kenney Williams cited the Forest Service’s non-discretionary duty under the Alaska National Interest and Lands Conservation Act of 1980 and Forest Service regulations to provide Berlaimont with “adequate access” for the “reasonable use” of the property.
She noted that following the release of the draft Record of Decision more than nine months ago, Berlaimont Estates LLC filed an objection to the Forest Service’s preferred road alignment alternative, saying that alignment would violate ANILCA. Based on the direction from Forest Service officials following the objection period, Kenney Williams acknowledged the Berlaimont team anticipated that the final decision would support the road alignment they find unacceptable.
“We continue to have the same concerns about Alternative 2 (the road alignment selected by the Forest Service) that we voiced in our objection — that it creates serious traffic and fire safety issues; permanent and irreversible damage to the ridgeline and view shed; and major impediments to wildlife with 80-foot-plus retaining walls and extensive blasting to create a zigzag road,” Kenney Williams said. “We will review the final ROD carefully and consider all of our options.”