Draft plan hopeful for White River

By Matt Sura

Conservationists groups have come out in support of the Forest Service's preferred alternative for the White River Forest Plan but say in many instances it did not go far enough.

"This plan is a step in the right direction," said Charlie Kerr, president of Concerned Citizens Resource Association. "The Forest Service has acknowledged the way the citizens' views and uses of the forest are changing. In general, they are working to protect habitat while still providing for extensive recreational opportunities, grazing, logging and other extractive uses."

The White River Forest Management Plan is a document, required by law, that sets management levels for timber harvesting, grazing, travel management, and recommends areas for wilderness designation. In the draft document, the Forest Service presents the full range of possible management prescriptions. The draft plan, which weighs over ten pounds, details six alternatives and states the Forest Service prefers alternative D.

The draft plan has been several years in the writing and has already cost millions of dollars. It is far from over. The Forest Service is accepting comments on the draft until February 9. After considering public comments, they will make all necessary plan revisions and submit a final decision document that will carry the force of law for all management decisions for the White River National Forest for the next ten to fifteen years.

Stretching from the east-side of Mesa County to Summit County, the White River National Forest consists of 2.27 million acres. Recreation is by far the highest use of the White River NF, which contains 12 ski resorts-- 64% of the total skiing in Colorado. It ranks first in recreation use among forests in the Rocky Mountain region and ranks fifth in the nation.

"Roads and ski areas provide for extraordinary recreational opportunities but they can be very harmful to the environment if not kept in check," Kerr said, "Excessive use and non-compatible simultaneous use (such as cross-county skiing vs. snowmobiling) need to be regulated. We commend the Forest Service for attempting to balance these competing uses."

The Forest Service's preferred alternative (alternative D) proposes to close 676 miles of roads and user-created trails. This is in keeping with Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck's direction to manage for the protection of wildlife habitat, watersheds, and to reduce the number of roads the Forest Service is responsible for maintaining. The Forest Service alternative will keep open 1,602 miles of roads and trails to motorized use.

Sloan Shoemaker, coordinator for Aspen Wilderness Workshop, says that the forest plan leaves open many roads that should be closed. "The Forest Service is proposing to legitimize some illegal, user-created roads and trails by designating them as part of the official Forest Service road system. This policy reinforces illegal activity and will encourage the proliferation of more user-created roads and trails across the Forest. It is allowing anyone with a throttle to determine the management of our public lands."

Under the alternative developed by the Aspen Wilderness Workshop (alternative I) the Forest Service would preserve additional roadless areas while still maintaining 1,493 miles of system roads and trails for motorized use.

Recently the Forest Service alternative has come under fire from off-road vehicle groups, Representative Scott McInnis and Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher for closing too many roads and not implementing the federal mandate of "multiple-use".

CCRA's Charlie Kerr disagrees. "If the Forest Service alternative is accepted, there will be enough roads in the White River National Forest to drive the equivalent of Grand Junction to Detroit. This is not about eliminating options. It is about preserving what people want from the White River National Forest." Forest Service figures show that non-motorized users of the forest outnumber motorized users 2.5 to 1. "Areas of quiet serenity need to be expanded." Kerr stated. "This policy...is allowing anyone with a throttle to determine the management of our public lands."

"All of the alternatives manage for multiple use." Shoemaker stated, "Multiple-use does not mean all uses in all places at all times. Nor does it mean we should use all the forest resources right now."

The Forest Service proposes to keep timber harvesting at their current levels despite the scrutiny they have come under in the past few years for below-cost timber sales. In 1997 the Forest Service lost over $1.1 million on timber sales. The cost of road construction and timber sale preparation was more than the revenue they received from selling the timber to logging corporations. Of the 298,000 acres that still qualify for wilderness protection, the Forest Service recommends adding only 47,000 acres or 16% of what is available.

Aspen Wilderness Workshop does not believe that this is enough. "Currently much of what is protected in the White River is higher-elevation rock and ice. What is missing are the lower elevation lands which are much more important animal habitat and provide for more species diversity."

Shoemaker went on to cite the Wilderness Act of 1964 that calls for adequate representation of all habitat types in the Wilderness Preservation System. Shoemaker warned, "This is our last opportunity to preserve these areas as wilderness."

For more information, or for a copy of the White River Forest Management Plan (or the plan summary), call the Forest Service at: (970) 945-2521.

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