Off-roaders rev up appeal to White River plan
The Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition planned to file an appeal before the appeal deadline, which was midnight Thursday.
More organizations, perhaps including environmental groups, were expected to possibly appeal as well. But Forest Service officials won’t know for sure how many were filed for a few days, because the deadline was for postmarked appeals, and the documents are sent to the agency’s Washington headquarters.
The appeal process represents one of the final chapters in what has been a half-decade process of implementing a new long-range WRNF plan.
A draft forest plan released in 1999 proposed putting a higher priority on the forest’s physical and biological resources than on human uses, and the final version, released in June, seeks to strike an equal balance between resource protection and human use.
Randy Parsons, a local motorized-vehicle enthusiast, fears that the plan still shorts motorized uses.
Parsons is president of the White River Forest Alliance, which formed to look out for motorized-vehicle-user interests in connection with the formation of the new WRNF plan.
He said it was decided that an appeal would be filed through the COHVC instead of his group because the COHVC has a staff attorney.
That attorney was unavailable for comment Thursday. But Parsons cited at least two issues that are to be part of the appeal.
“We felt that the (land management) prescriptions were too generic and so generically written, it leaves too much discretion to the individual land managers to put in what they feel would be the proper use of the land,” said Parsons.
He said a second concern is that the Forest Service overstepped its bounds in designating elk habitat at the expense of motorized vehicle use.
“We want to see some more justification for that, especially in the Four Mile area,” he said, referring to a popular recreation area above Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs.
As of Thursday, WRNF officials were aware of only two appeals that had been received in Washington. Both were from individuals.
Officials anticipated that any larger-scale appeals coming from organized groups would not be filed until the last minute, so they could use every available day to prepare them.
“Today’s the posting deadline, so I’m guessing there might be several posted today,” Dan Hormaechea, the WRNF’s planning staff officer, said Thursday.
Forest officials also indicated that at least three interests – motorized vehicle users, environmentalists, and the ski industry – might possibly appeal. That was based on the fact that representatives of those interests visited a room at WRNF headquarters where documents used to write the forest plan are available for public inspection.
“I don’t know if they were actually building appeal points or looking for clarification” of the decisions contained in the plan, Hormaechea said.
Environmentalists have criticized the plan, saying it backtracks on conservation commitments contained in the draft plan.
Environmentalists were still deciding in recent weeks whether to appeal, and weren’t commenting officially Thursday regarding what decision they had reached. But a source within the environmental community said an appeal was expected.
Kristin Rust, communications director for the Colorado Ski Country USA industry trade group, said the organization’s vice president of public policy was on vacation and she didn’t know whether ski resorts planned to appeal.
“We’ll know tomorrow, I suppose,” Rust said.
The final plan allows for more ski acreage expansion than the draft plan, particularly for resorts close to the Front Range, but does not allow any new ski areas.
Parsons said of the final WRNF plan, “It was so generic, when you first read through it you thought, “Well, that’s not so bad.'” A second reading, he said, revealed a lack of details.
“It left a huge, wide latitude for individual land managers, and that goes back to what their personal views happen to be,” Parsons said.
He said motorized vehicle uers would rather see stricter parameters for land managers to follow.
He said the concern regarding elk stems in part from the fact that they are abundant in Colorado, and from a feeling that the proposed land restrictions use “too broad a brush.”
These restrictions impact summer motorized use more than winter motorized use, since most elk habitat is lower than the terrain used by snowmobilers, he said.
Hormaechea was hesitant to respond to the issues raised by the COHVC appeal until he is able to read the appeal.
He did note that the forest plan as it pertains to travel management is meant to be over-arching, and not specific to every acre.
But Parsons said those large-scale prescriptions are supposed to dictate how specific areas are managed.
Hormaechea said the two individuals who have appealed the plan both live in Colorado, one of them within the region that contains the WRNF. He said he couldn’t release their names until the appeals deadline had passed.
He said he believed their appeals pertained to land management questions.
“I’m guessing as much as anything they’re confused about the process,” he said.
What happens now?
So what’s next, now that the deadline has passed to appeal the White River National Forest plan?
First, a 20-day period goes into effect in which parties that didn’t appeal but want to be involved in discussions involving appeal points can make their interest known.
The appeals themselves must be acted on within 160 days. However, Dan Hormaechea, the WRNF’s planning staff officer, said action could take longer than that if discussions are ongoing between the Forest Service and the appellant to resolve the issues at hand.
While an appeal theoretically could challenge the entire forest plan, Hormaechea said it would not be likely to succeed. Such an appeal assumes the Forest Service mishandled the entire planning process.
Instead, substantive appeals more often target specific issues, attempting to show specifically where procedures and laws weren’t followed, and what remedies should be required.
Mere opinions that a plan is wrong are apt to be discarded as frivolous, and dismissed at the outset, Hormaechea said.
It’s up to the Forest Service to address each point raised in an appeal.
An appeal-reviewing officer at the agency’s Washington office evaluates the matter, and then an appeal-deciding officer within the agency makes a final determination.
That officer can go in several directions. Options include upholding the specific portion of the plan as it stands, dismissing that portion of the plan, having the WRNF reconsider certain issues raised in the appeal, or ordering the WRNF to implement the portion of the plan under certain conditions.
The forest plan as a whole remains in effect during an appeal, as does the portion being appealed. It is possible for a judge to be asked to stay part of a forest plan, but that would be an extreme action requiring proof that the planning process was “pretty broken,” said Hormaechea. He doesn’t think the grounds exist for such action.
The Forest Service’s decisions on appeals are themselves subject to court review if an appellant chooses to take the matter further.
Normally, Hormaechea said, appellants and the Forest Service go through an appeal resolution process, attempting to resolve individual concerns or an entire appeal.
A lot of the process just involves clarifying what is contained in the plan, he said.
“These documents are so complex and so detailed, people just need to get a better understanding of them,” he said.
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