Clearing up some rumors
September 28, 2007
Wilderness Workshop’s recent work on the TransRockies Run has been grist for local rumor mills. We’d like to clarify our perspective.
For starters, the Wilderness Workshop was happy to see the inaugural event run smoothly. Success was sweeter because organizers made significant route alterations to alleviate environmental concerns.
People ask, “Why is the workshop making such a fuss about this event? It’s only a footrace.” Well, this was not your average footrace. The proposal envisioned a world class, multi-day stage race that would return to the area annually. Organizers anticipated more than 800 participants and 1,200 affiliated staff by 2011. Participants could choose to spend nights in “tent cities” or RVs. Fully catered base camps would include massage tents, media areas and vendor booths. Camps would move with the race to remote backcountry areas daily.
To ensure alluring promotional video and film footage, organizers were intent on a mid-September run. They planned to use helicopters and professional TV crews to capture runners awash in golden leaves. The timing also corresponded with hunting season ” putting runners into forests with bows, muzzleloaders and high-powered rifles.
Timing and route selection promised to impact bears preparing for winter. Disturbance associated with projected numbers was likely to displace bears from fall foraging grounds, pushing them into nearby subdivisions. The proposed route also infringed on the analysis area of a five-year, $600,000 bear study near Aspen. The study is exploring bear behavior in the urban interface and may help us figure out how to minimize dangerous bear/ human encounters. Displacement of bears or in-creased encounters could skew results.
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Timing also corresponded with the elk rut. The route included several important rutting areas and incorporated nonsystem, or bandit, trails ” setting bad precedent by allowing development and expansion of unmapped, unmaintained paths without a legal planning process, public comment or environmental analysis.
Finally, the proposal failed to include plans for collection/disposal of sanitation and litter along the route. With hundreds of participants, improper disposal of human waste in pristine watersheds could have long-term water quality impacts.
These environmental concerns motivated the Workshop’s actions. We urged the Forest Service to conduct an impact analysis. The agency is, after all, mandated to perform thorough and unbiased analysis for actions significantly impacting the environment. Analysis can be avoided if a proposal qualifies for a “categorical exclusion” as routine administration and maintenance, or as an action that will not individually or cumulatively impact the environment.
This event ” with thousands of participants/staff returning annually in RVs, tent cities, and helicopters, and infringing on important habitat ” did not qualify as routine administration or maintenance. It promised significant impacts. Nonetheless, the Forest Service was set on approval. The agency approved the race under an exclusion permitting “short-term (one year or less) special use of National Forest System Lands” without analysis. Use of this exclusion contravened organizers’ intent to make TransRockies an annual event as well as the Forest Service’s public notice which gave five years of participant projections.
That sums it up. Wilderness Workshop pushed organizers to revise their route and urged the Forest Service to analyze impacts. In the end, after Pitkin County denied their permit, event organizers revised the route to alleviate environmental concerns. The Forest Service, however, failed to adhere to procedures mandated by environmental law. The process was illegal, it undermined the public trust and it shortchanged the public process.
Conservation analyst/staff attorney