Vail Valley: New forest chief welcomes challenges
The new top official in the White River National Forest, which surrounds the Vail Valley, says he won’t get bogged down in the same old clashes that have hijacked the attention of public land managers for decades.
Scott Fitzwilliams said the battles over logging versus preservation of old growth forests, cattle grazing versus wetlands protection, and motorized vehicle access versus wilderness – debates that defined the transformation of the Old West into the New West – are essentially settled.
The U.S. Forest Service spent 50 years after World War II helping industry extract products from the national forests, but the agency has completed a switch to a “restorative management philosophy,” said Fitzwilliams, who took over as White River National Forest Supervisor on Sept. 1. It’s now ingrained in the agency to repair the damage from 50 years of road building rather than assist more large-scale extraction of natural resources.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have cows, oil and gas, and logging here and there,” he said. “But the influence (of restorative management) is there, the emphasis is there, the leadership is aligned in there.”
He cited an example from the Willamette National Forest in Eugene, Ore., where he was deputy forest supervisor before taking the position with the White River. Fitzwilliams said some entities wanted to continue fighting over old-growth logging. The Forest Service had to convince people that the battle was over and the agency had moved on to other issues. The only logging allowed was thinning to enhance old-growth characteristics.
The agency invited conservationists to move past the issue, Fitzwilliams said, and help it with something more productive, like improvements to a salmon stream.
In the White River National Forest, he sees some of the same old battles being fought. For example, conservationists are making a big effort in the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign to add 400,000 acres of specially protected lands in Colorado. The majority of those lands, but not all of them, are on the White River. Fitzwilliams would like to redirect that effort into on-the-ground projects, like watershed restoration.
“Making everything wilderness, or 400,000 acres of wilderness, I just don’t think that’s a priority right now,” he said. “The forest is in pretty darn good shape.
“To me, the conservation challenge of the next century is not should we make it wilderness or not, or should we lease it (for natural gas development) or not, or should this little area be open to ATVs,” he said. “The battle is how are we going to collaboratively grow and prosper.”
He wants the White River staff and the people in the communities surrounded by the national forest to set their sights on bigger issues, like the health of the national forest and the private lands it borders.
The Forest Service and its partners – local governments, businesses and residents – have to figure out an adaptive management plan for the next century as the problems presented by climate change grow more severe, he said.
Forget the debate over the causes of climate change, Fitzwilliams said. If the scientific models on the effects of climate change are accurate “or even half accurate,” then the national forests face serious ecological threats. Scientists predict more severe weather events for the Rocky Mountain region: longer droughts, warmer temperatures, shorter periods of snowfall sandwiched between dry autumns and springs.
Weather is directly linked to forest health. Drought early this decade stressed lodgepole pines and made them more vulnerable to bark beetles. The insects have feasted on millions of forested acres throughout the West.
The Vail area and Summit County have been hit harder by the epidemic than the Roaring Fork Valley, but the entire White River National Forest will be affected, Fitzwilliams said.
His biggest concern under the broad umbrella of forest health is watershed degradation. Most of the water used by Coloradans for both drinking and irrigation originates high up in the mountains, often in national forests. If more people understood the connection between forest lands and domestic water supply, Fitzwilliams believes, then they would be motivated, even inspired, to protect forest health.
Watersheds are expected to run into greater problems as the wrath of the beetles spreads. Dead trees are susceptible to fire, and a wildfire at the head of a watershed can strip the land of vegetation so it won’t hold water as well. Runoff through such areas can degrade water quality.
Another major challenge to forest health is to find a way to use beetle-killed trees before they go up in flames, Fitzwilliams said. He wants the White River National Forest to put that so-called biomass to good use, possibly as fuel, possibly as carbon injected into farmers’ fields or for purposes yet to be discovered.
Fitzwilliams said he might be pursuing a “utopian world” in trying to get different groups to collaborate, but he said people leading large organizations must have optimism. The White River National Forest is just the place to show what that optimism can accomplish. He considers it a “dream job.”
“As a deputy supervisor your next step is supervisor. I had a pretty short list of where I wanted to work and this was way up there,” said Fitzwilliams, 44. He moved here with his wife Lisa and their 7-year-old son, Sam.
“First of all, the location and quality of life fits my and my family’s interests,” he said. “We love to camp, fish, ski, horseback ride, hunt, hike – and I can’t think of a better place to be.
“From a professional standpoint, the issues on this forest really match my experiences with ski areas, recreation, oil and gas leasing and grazing issues. Despite the controversy, I enjoy working in these arenas.”
Fitzwilliams was raised in Wisconsin and got a bachelor of science degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin. He earned his master’s degree in environmental planning and policy from the University of Colorado at Denver.
He started his career with the Forest Service nearly 20 years ago as an intern in the Rocky Mountain Region office in Golden. His first regular position with the agency was as public affairs officer on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.
Progressing up the ladder, he later worked as a district ranger in the Little Missouri National Grassland in North Dakota, then as recreation, lands and minerals staff officer on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. He was most recently the deputy forest supervisor on Oregon’s Willamette, and served as acting supervisor there as well.
Fitzwilliams referred repeatedly in an interview to the collaborative efforts he intends to make with residents of the towns around the White River forest. It comes across as genuine, rather than the latest buzzword of a public land manager.
“Using the ‘celebrity’ and high-profile nature of the area,” he said, “I want to work with the communities and other agencies to solve problems and better connect the public with their national forests.”
Fitzwilliams said he knows there are a lot of tasks and projects on his plate, but he welcomes the challenge.
“I described my first month of working here as drinking out of a fire hose,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on.”
• RECREATION: Some national forests close to urban areas have limited the number of visitors to popular destinations, but Fitzwilliams doesn’t believe the White River National Forest has reached that point. His career has convinced him that forest capacity increases when you provide people with education, on-site information and high-quality facilities. Follow that recipe and forest users will care for the resources and facilities, he said. The National Parks handle considerably more people than national forests because their facilities are in good shape and they provide information for visitors.
One important step for the supervisor’s office is to create a Web site where prospective visitors can take a “virtual tour” of the forest. It will always be a challenge for the Forest Service to pay for facility maintenance, but the agency must do the best it can with limited resources.
“Whining about money or locking gates and saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to keep people out of here’ – that doesn’t make friends,” Fitzwilliams said.
• OIL AND GAS: The national forest is open to mineral extraction unless Congress withdraws specific lands from leasing. Once an oil company leases land, it has a binding contract with the U.S. government to lease the minerals. Fitzwilliams and his staff don’t have any options.
“There are places that I don’t think oil and gas is all that compatible,” Fitzwilliams said, singling out roadless areas where the character would be altered by gas production.
The supervisor’s office will soon start an “environmental impact statement” to examine lands that were available but were never leased by oil companies, or where leases have expired. The study will determine if those lands should remain available or be withdrawn.
Fitzwilliams said there is obviously a high demand in the U.S. for oil and gas and a legitimate opportunity to satisfy some of that demand using forest lands. But the agency must ensure natural resources aren’t damaged in the process. It can accomplish that by placing stipulations on oil and gas production and enforcing them, Fitzwilliams said.
The technology exists for gas extraction to be “done right,” Fitzwilliams said, but he has also seen areas where “it should have been done different.”
• TRAVEL MANAGEMENT: An important first step in managing where motorized and mechanized vehicles can travel was made in the 2002 White River forest management plan update, a sort of blueprint for how the public lands can be used. The Forest Service closed roads and trails unless they were specifically designated as open.
A complementary document called a Travel Management Plan is expected early in 2010 and will address the status on every road and trail in the forest – defining what modes of transportation are allowed, and closing some so-called bandit trails.
“I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to make everybody happy. There will be places that people accessed via ATV or motorcycle that they won’t be able to anymore,” Fitzwilliams said. There will also be areas kept open to motorized traffic that some people want closed.
Fitzwilliams stressed it will be possible to amend the plan after it is in place and improvements become evident. “This will be a starting point, a big starting point,” he said.
• FUNDING: Realistically, Congress is unlikely to increase funding for major Forest Service activities such as recreation, lands, range, wildlife and fisheries, according to Fitzwilliams. Facilities maintenance is “woefully” underfunded and that probably won’t change either.
“If you look at the bottom dollar of the White River, I expect it to go up over the next several years,” Fitzwilliams said. “But where it’s going up is bark beetle.”
From a natural resources perspective, the devastation wrought by the beetle constitutes an emergency, he said. The Forest Service is responding by keeping people safe and facilities out of harm’s way. That means clearing dead trees from roads, campgrounds and power lines, and especially where the forest meets high-density residential areas.
The agency’s Rocky Mountain Region must show that bark beetle mitigation is a priority in its existing budget before it can seek more money.
“We’re going to give it all we have with the money we have,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s going to come at the expense of other projects. I don’t mean they’re going to take away our money. But there’s only so much capacity we have with the people we have.”