Leavitt: Berlaimont decision sets a terrible precedent | VailDaily.com

Leavitt: Berlaimont decision sets a terrible precedent

Howard Leavitt
Valley Voices

The U.S. Forest Service just doesn’t get it.

Howard Leavitt

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, more commonly known as ANILCA, is the basis for developers of a proposed luxury subdivision to claim a right to several miles of new paved road across public lands north of Edwards.

The act was passed by Congress in 1980 “to preserve for future generations certain lands and waters in the State of Alaska that had nationally significant values, including areas important for wildlife, subsistence, wilderness, recreation, scientific, scenic and historic reasons.”

The guidelines of this legislation provided for “adequate” access across public and protected lands to existing mining claims and private properties within those lands “for reasonable use and enjoyment.” The term “reasonable use” is critical.

That the Berlaimont developers bought a property which had been abandoned numerous times, due to lack viability for development, is nobody’s fault but their own. This should be obvious to National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who is now poised to allow them to pave our public lands to facilitate speculators’ profit. It’s really that simple.

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Ignoring, literally, thousands of signatures and many hundreds of comments decrying the negative impacts of this project from individuals; independent wildlife and conservation experts; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and local, regional, state and federal officials, Fitzwilliams blatantly disregarded direction from his own Forest Service superior to address and correct overlooked and flawed aspects of the Environmental Impact Statement.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is, first and foremost, an engine for conservation and wildlife protection as stated in its language. Contrary to the Forest Service mission, agency officials have shown shameless indifference to that goal in order to appease a private developer’s dreams of riches. All at the expense of wildlife at a time when local wildlife populations are experiencing their largest decline since we started keeping records. The decline is not from over-hunting, or disease, or displacement by other species, but from year-round habitat encroachment by ever-increasing development.

How do we know this? The Forest Service’s very own Forest Plan identified most of the area surrounding the development as “critical winter habitat.” So critical as to require a seasonal closure in order to protect the many species of wildlife that depend upon it for winter range and migration. And now, agency officials will cavalierly throw known wildlife science to the wind to facilitate sprawl in the backcountry.

Even worse, this decision will set a damaging precedent that will open the floodgates for others seeking to leverage this legislation to maximize private gain, likely at the expense of even more critical habitat and wilderness across the West. The Conservation Act provision for access was set up as the “exception” rather than the “rule” and the Forest Service should view this unnecessary and overreaching request through this lens. Berlaimont Estates is unreasonable and the upgraded access in unconscionable.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement is the last step before the Final Record of Decision. This is the last chance for the Forest Service to decide against taking the expeditious and easy road and to have the courage and commitment to their mission to make the right decision for the future generations.

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