Forest Service not sold on Eagle County-area Gems proposal
ASPEN, Colorado – The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t believe all the lands targeted for Wilderness in the Hidden Gems campaign actually qualify for the special protection, according to the top local official in the agency.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the agency is sticking to a finding it made in 2002 that 82,000 acres of the White River should qualify as Wilderness. Environmentalists are pushing for protection of a significantly larger amount of land in the Hidden Gems Wilderness campaign. They say their assessment of backcountry lands show an additional 325,000 acres qualify as Wilderness in the White River National Forest, and 400,000 acres overall when Bureau of Land Management parcels are added.
Conservationists are butting heads with user groups like mountain bikers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts about the proposal, but the Forest Service had stayed out of the fray.
“We’ve been relatively quiet about it. It’s not our proposal,” said Fitzwilliams, who took the forest supervisor post a month ago.
He said he has studied the Hidden Gems proposal carefully along with other issues facing the White River. He wants the Forest Service, conservation groups and various forest user groups to concentrate on collaborative projects rather than fight about Wilderness. Convincing Congress to protect that much additional land could take years.
“We need to shift. I think it’s a little small, short-sighted anyway, to say the biggest issue we have is we need to make more Wilderness,” Fitzwilliams said. “I don’t think that’s the biggest issue in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We could make [all forest lands] Wilderness and the issues are still right here, the ones that are really going to monumentally change the characteristics and natural resources of the valley – like [bark beetles] and the huge fuel build-up, development of private land and conservation of open spaces.”
Disagreement over Wilderness qualification
When the White River National Forest staff updated a management plan in 2002 it recommended creation of two new Wilderness areas totaling 62,000 acres and additions totaling 20,000 acres to existing Wilderness areas.
Fitzwilliams said the agency’s process is designed to provide a “thorough vetting” of issues – such as the qualification of land and potential conflicts.
Wilderness advocates agree that the 82,000 acres targeted by the Forest Service should be protected, but they claim the agency missed other lands that have Wilderness characteristics and provide excellent wildlife habitat. Those additional lands are generally lower in elevation than existing Wilderness.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree on the acres beyond the 82,000,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, the Carbondale-based organization heading the Hidden Gems campaign.
He said the Forest Service assessment of Wilderness lands was “politicized” by former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican who represented most of western Colorado earlier this decade. He believes there was pressure to limit protection of roadless lands because those are areas where oil and gas companies want to lease.
Shoemaker acknowledged that the Forest Service and environmentalists can look at the same pieces of ground and reach different conclusions about their worthiness for Wilderness.
“There’s some bias in the agency against Wilderness,” he said. “Unabashedly we’re looking for places to apply the Wilderness Act.”
Fitzwilliams said he shares Shoemaker’s passion for Wilderness lands. However, he feels the designation should be used sparingly, when lands clearly qualify. Overextending the designation diminishes the special quality of Wilderness, he said.
About 750,000 acres of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest are currently designated Wilderness.
Lands leased by oil companies
The debate goes beyond the philosophical. Fitzwilliams said the Hidden Gems proposal poses at least two practical problems. First, it would create Wilderness in areas where the Forest Service wants to remove trees killed by bark beetles. Second, the proposal would place the Wilderness designation on lands that are leased to oil and gas companies.
Fitzwilliams said a top priority in the White River is forest management in areas where dead trees pose a threat to roads, power lines, campgrounds and other infrastructure. It is also working with communities in Eagle and Summit counties on a plan to remove deadfall and ease the fire risk in the urban interface, areas where the forest and development meet.
Shoemaker said the Wilderness planning “is a dynamic process” and that the current proposal is likely to change. Representatives are working with community leaders to understand what projects they foresee. In some cases, the proposed Wilderness boundary can be adjusted to allay concerns, he said.
Interference with existing oil and gas leases is another concern for the Forest Service. Fitzwilliams said that five proposed Wilderness areas in Hidden Gems would affect 46 oil and gas leases totaling 36,584 acres. Those areas include Assignation Ridge and Thompson Creek southwest of Carbondale, as well as East Willow, Hayes Creek and Clear Fork.
The Forest Service doesn’t have the option of ignoring those leases. “Existing oil and gas leases are essentially a binding contract – the lessor has the legal right to the oil and gas resources,” Fitzwilliams said.
Shoemaker said the Hidden Gems proponents were aware of the gas-lease issues. Other battles already under way in court and in Congress may resolve the status of many of those leases. Critics of the Bush administration contend it ignored a Clinton administration ruling on roadless public lands. In western Colorado, leases were sold on roadless lands.
“Many of those leases were sold illegally, and they shouldn’t exist,” Shoemaker said. If the conservationists prevail, those lands would be withdrawn from leasing opportunity.
“The fact that those leases exist doesn’t detract from the Wilderness characteristics on the ground,” Shoemaker said.
It is unknown if the difference in opinion between Wilderness advocates and the Forest Service will come into play in the Hidden Gems debate. Wilderness can only be approved by an act of Congress. Wilderness Workshop and its allies will shop for a sponsor for a bill after completing the preparation work. Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service typically offers a recommendation on bills if asked by Congress.