Bush appointee cuts White River forest safeguards
In early March, Mozart Creek lies silent under ice. Saggy snow covers the boulders along the streambed, while moss-draped spruce and fir tower above. Come spring, the drainage will bubble and sing with melted snow from the surrounding peaks, and from the ski trails and service roads at Keystone Ski Area. This small stream and dozens of others in the 2.4 million-acre White River National Forest could be in trouble. Last December, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary David P. Tenny dusted off rarely used “discretionary review” powers, and ordered forest officials to ditch a series of protective water standards outlined in the forest master plan adopted almost three years ago. Tenny also directed the Forest Service to remove a provision requiring the agency to assess impacts to lynx habitat. Some forest officials downplay the revisions as administrative housekeeping. But others say the old rules are at the heart of their water-quality program.The Denver Post lashed out at the changes: In an editorial, it called Tenny’s order “an egregious example of the Bush administration’s fraudulent claims about heeding science, local control and public input.”This is just the latest twist in the long-running saga of the White River National Forest plan revision. The plan, five years in the making, included a record level of involvement from the public, county commissioners and Colorado’s congressional delegation. It was adopted in June 2002, by then-Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, who said it represented a fair balance among many interests, including the ski industry, ranchers, four-wheelers, mountain bikers and conservation groups.Anticipating increased visitation from the booming Front Range, the plan calls for well-managed recreational development, including potential ski-area expansions at Breckenridge, Vail and Arapahoe Basin. At the same time, it included some of the most protective natural resource standards in any recent forest plan, according to Environmental Protection Agency staffers who reviewed it.Before joining the Bush administration as a deputy to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, Tenny worked for Oregon Rep. Bob Smith, R, and was one of the strongest opponents to Clinton-era Forest Service reform, including the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. As one of Rey’s lieutenants, Tenny now helps enact what many critics say are major rollbacks of the Clinton administration’s environmental gains. Tenny’s review of the forest plan may have been prompted by the ski industry: Vail Resorts filed a voluminous appeal of the White River plan and urged the Forest Service to drop or dilute its strict water standards. “They have the potential to dramatically hinder or obstruct the diversion of water for snowmaking, complicate the routine exercise of water rights and call into question other long-standing uses of water rights,” said the appeal.Those water standards essentially require the Forest Service to maintain or improve water quality and aquatic habitat, and to maintain sufficient stream flows for scenic values.Vail Resorts also objected to provisions protecting an area called Jones Gulch for lynx and other wildlife, because it wanted to build ski lifts there for its Keystone resort. After Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth rejected the company’s appeal in late 2004, company representatives met with Tenny, says Harris Sherman, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, which often represents the ski company. “We did ask him to look at our appeal carefully. Many of those standards are impossible to comply with,” Sherman says.But Regional Forest Chief Rick Cables, who signed the recent water agreement with the state, also approved the White River plan and supported its water standards. “I signed the plan, so I didn’t think they were impossible,” he says.Cables says the discretionary review process Tenny used is “not unprecedented but not real common.” Cables would rather not see this kind of change happen, he says: “My preference is to let the professionals work it out.”The White River National Forest is now studying Tenny’s rule changes. If staffers believe the changes will have a significant impact on water quality or lynx habitat, the agency will have to go back to the drawing board with another lengthy environmental study.The author writes from Silverthorne, Colo. High Country News (www.hcn.org) covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.
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