Heicher and Andree: Road to Berlaimont will be disastrous for deer, elk
The U.S. Forest Service Draft Record of Decision regarding Berlaimont Estates comes as no surprise to us. As career wildlife officers in Eagle County, we spent a combined 70 years safeguarding wildlife. Our work was often thwarted by Forest Service decisions, pivots, conflicting messaging, and unsuccessful mitigation.
We observed decision upon decision placing recreation and development interests above wildlife needs. The recent Berlaimont draft decision is a prime example of the pro-development culture of the White River National Forest.
The Forest Service bases its case for paving the road to Berlaimont on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, an Alaskan law intended to give people with inholdings inside National Forests adequate access for “reasonable use and enjoyment” of that property. The Forest Service says this law forces its hand and requires approval to pave 2.4 miles of existing dirt road to the Berlaimont property … because the owner wants to build 19 estates on their 640-acre parcel.
Development is an overreach of the ANILCA intention. “Reasonable use and enjoyment” do not equate to speculative development and profiteering in the millions of dollars, certainly not at the expense of sustaining wildlife on public lands.
To support this errant use ANILCA, the Forest Service bypassed comparable inholdings within the White River National Forest — local treasures like Homestake Creek, Deep Creek, Piney Lake, Fulford, and Woods Lake, where wildlife thrives and people have winter access via snowmobile, cross-country skiing, and snowshoe. Instead, the Forest Service found one case, not nearly as remote as Berlaimont, on the Routt Forest, and used this flimsy example as a reason to roll over for a developer.
The road itself is an immense barrier to wildlife, bisecting the second largest migration area in the state. The cut-and-fill road building across these steep hillsides will require 20-foot to 3-foot high retaining walls that extend for 400 feet. This is the equivalent of building giant cliffs throughout a migratory path. The result will be death and carnage.
Further, paving the road requires amending the Forest Plan to remove critical wildlife habitat protections. Is this because the plummeting deer and elk numbers have suddenly recovered? No, the numbers are still down as much as 65%.
The tons of 95/5% sand/salt mix needed to keep the road safe in winter will leave a salty residue, attracting animals to the road. The heat of the pavement will melt the snow and grow the first green shoots in spring, further drawing the animals in and risking a high mortality rate. Instead of demanding viable wildlife crossings, the Forest Service offered low speed limits to save the wildlife from road dangers. Who will enforce this?
The second largest impact on wildlife here is human recreation. With Berlaimont, the Forest Service prioritizes this activity above the sustainability of wild nature. From 2013-2016, the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife spent three years and thousands of dollars enhancing sage grouse habitat and deer/elk critical winter habitat near Berlaimont. Now, by some convoluted reasoning, the Forest Service is proposing a new multi-use recreation trail right through the heart of this habitat restoration.
The draft decision calls on the developer to enforce seasonal closures on White River National Forest land surrounding Berlaimont. How will the Forest Service enforce accountability for these closures? Similarly, how does the Forest Service plan to enforce the many other aspects of mitigation called for — revegetation, wildlife closures, weeds? In our years of field work we have seen mitigation measures work only in a handful of circumstances and then only in minimizing the impacts. The Forest Service, in the Eagle Valley, has a dismal record of policing or follow through on their commitments and responsibilities.
In the long term, the paved road, enhanced recreation, parking lots and new recreation trail will encourage far deeper penetration into a fragile ecosystem that barely sustains the native species today. In short, the Forest Service is creating a sacrifice zone in Edwards for development and recreation.
The Forest Service may still choose the “no action” alternative. Communities, recreational users and Colorado Parks and Wildlife could work together to protect these lands and wildlife. We encourage you to put community pressure on the Forest Service and on our county leaders to deny a paved road that will surely be the final cut to the herds of deer and elk that are suffering death by a thousand cuts.
Bill Andree is a retired district wildlife manager in the Vail district and Bill Heicher is a retired district wildlife manager for the Eagle district.
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