White River plan still not out of the woods | VailDaily.com

White River plan still not out of the woods

The mediator will start working in February with representatives of the federal agency and some of the parties that filed appeals after the White River National Forest Plan was released in June.

The Forest Plan is a voluminous document that the Forest Service worked on for seven years. It will guide management of the 2.25 million acre White River National Forest – which includes more than 80 percent of lands in Pitkin County – for at least the next 10 years.

It has been under intense scrutiny by conservationists, off-road vehicle groups and the ski industry. Appeals were filed by 14 individuals or organizations on 280 points, according to forest planner Melany Lamb.

Some of the appeals will be easier to resolve than others. For example, a handful of objections came from individuals who don’t want specific roads or trails closed to motorized vehicles. Lamb said Forest Service representatives will take a stab at solving those complaints themselves.

“There may be some other issues that we can’t handle on the local level at all,” Lamb said.

For example, one appeal pits the ski industry against environmentalists over activities allowed in lynx habitat.

And perhaps the most timely and closely watched dispute pits environmentalists against the Colorado Department of Natural Resources over logging in the national forest.

State pushes for more logging

The natural resources department wants the Forest Service to allow even more logging than proposed in the plan to improve “forest health” and to increase the “water yield” from spring runoff.

After a summer in which more than 40,000 acres were charred in Colorado by catastrophic fires, the Forest Service must engage in “more actively managing” the forest “through thinning and commercial harvesting,” according to the state agency’s appeal.

“A mere 15,000 acres planned for timber management – less than one percent of the total White River National Forest – is a recipe for disaster,” said the appeal. “How many fires must Colorado suffer before the Forest Service takes action?”

On the other end of the spectrum on logging is an environmental coalition led by the Aspen Wilderness Workshop. Its appeal contends the Forest Service used incorrect assumptions to calculate potential timber revenues and net public benefits, and the forest plan artificially inflates the total acreage of land suitable for timber sales.

The Aspen Wilderness Workshop is aligned with regional and national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, which provides legal muscle on conservation issues.

Tackling a tangled web

Forest planner Lamb said the White River National Forest office has the option of trying to negotiate settlements of the appeals or simply letting the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters tackle the task. Issues can also advance to court.

The regional forester wanted local Forest Service officials to try to settle the disputes.

The chore isn’t as simple as listening to an appeal and ruling on its validity. Any time an appeal is filed, interested parties in a forest plan have the opportunity to be an “intervener” on that issue. That enables the intervening party to be part of the debate on that specific issue.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources applied to intervene on 12 of the 13 other appeals. The Aspen Wilderness Workshop and its allies want to intervene on all appeals raised by the ski industry.

Lamb said 14 appeals on 280 points really isn’t an unusual amount, given the broad scope of a forest plan and its long-term implications. She remains optimistic that mediation can settle the appeals or at least drastically reduce the contested points.

“We really don’t feel it’s an us versus them situation,” she said. “Overall I feel really good about the Forest Plan.”

Dan Hormaechea, lead planner in the White River National Forest, said even complex issues such as logging, where opposing sides are far apart, can be resolved by a good mediator. The key will be taking small steps.

“It’s like that old saying says, ‘Don’t try to eat the elephant in one setting,’ ” Hormaechea said.

Any issues that aren’t resolved are subject to review by the Forest Service administrator’s office and possibly the courts. Meanwhile, the Forest Plan has been implemented, even the provisions subject to appeal.

Forest Plan appeals cover the spectrum

After the White River National Forest Plan was completed last summer by the U.S. Forest Service, 14 appeals were filed before the September deadline. The following is a list of the party that appealed and a summary of their complaints:

– Colorado Ski Country, Vail Resorts and Copper Mountain – They concentrated on wildlife issues, particularly lynx habitat.

– Town of Gypsum and LEDE Limited Liability – Raised concerns about wilderness designation of land south of Gypsum that contains water infrastructure for the town.

– Three individuals – Two opposed specific trail and road closures to motorized vehicles; one sought greater separation of winter users of the Shrine Pass area outside of Vail.

– Colorado Department of Natural Resources – Seeks more logging, limits on federal water rights on forest lands and objects to any designation of wild, scenic or recreational rivers.

– Aspen Wilderness Workshop and seven allies – Claims the analyses performed for the Forest Plan on ski areas, timber suitability, roadless areas and wilderness, and wildlife protection were biased, flawed or insufficient.

– Arapahoe Basin – Raised minor boundary issue.

– Blue Ribbon Coalition, and Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition – Oppose trail and road closures and want more terrain opened to vehicles.

– Back Country Citizens Alliance – Want more winter terrain designated for backcountry skiers.

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