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DNR waters down forest plan comments by wildlife officials

Heather McGregor

The Colorado Department of Wildlife’s strong comments on the proposed White River National Forest Plan have been significantly watered down by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Under new state rules, the DOW’s comments on wildlife issues were reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources – the DOW’s “parent” agency – instead of going directly to the Forest Service.

The new policy was instituted in October by DNR Chief Greg Walcher. It requires agencies within the department to submit comments to Walcher’s office rather than directly to federal agencies.

Most of the Division of Wildlife’s comments were passed along intact, and some were strengthened and made more clear.

But the most assertive comments from district wildlife managers, particularly those about road closures, logging, ski lifts and wildlife conflicts, were dropped.

In addition, the rewrite effectively erases the DOW’s strong endorsement of Alternative D, the Forest Service’s preferred version of the plan, which has aroused strong opposition. Introductory remarks about the alternative’s strong commitment to conservation combined with active forest management disappeared in the DNR-edited document.

A copy of the DOW’s original comments was obtained last week by the Glenwood Independent, using a Colorado Open Records Law request.

At least one conservation group has been denied a copy of the same document.

Matt Sura of Grand Junction, an organizer for Western Colorado Congress, said Division of Wildlife officials refused his request for a copy, citing a directive from the Department of Natural Resources.

The Department of Natural Resources’ final version of the comments, which also include comments from the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, are available on the agency’s Web site, at http://www.dnr.state.co.us/whiteriver.

In a cover letter to Regional Forester Lyle Laverty, Walcher acknowledges the differences of opinion within his department over the forest-plan proposal.

“There are differing perspectives on whether policy should focus on dispersing trail use, as many users prefer, or concentrating it, as wildlife officials recommend.

“These differences exist within the general public, as well as within the agencies of state government, and these comments reflect those various perspectives,” Walcher wrote.

He also declined to endorse any of the six alternatives laid out in the draft forest plan, choosing instead to raise issues that should be addressed no matter which alternative is chosen.

And he called on the Forest Service to deliver a plan that balances national environmental goals “in the context of regional environmental and economic values.”

The “Wildlife Issues and Comments” forwarded to the Forest Service are divided into general topical comments and specific comments from district wildlife managers within the White River National Forest’s seven ranger districts. Cuts and clearcuts General comments about logging remain intact, but two strong recommendations to reduce logging were cut from the final DNR document.

Meeker area wildlife managers called for a “drastic reduction” in aspen sales, pending further study on slow regrowth in aspen clearcuts. They also called for a reduction of conifer logging in Bar HL Park and on Coulter Mesa, citing a loss of big-game habitat from cuts that have already occurred.

The DNR chopped out those suggestions.

In addition, comments about improving timber stands to provide better habitat for lynx and snowshoe hares were rewritten to imply that commercial logging is just as good a method of habitat control as natural and prescribed fires.

The DOW comments call logging “the next best method” and then offer detailed comments about logging methods that would provide the most improvements. Those explanations were dropped from the DNR comments.

The DNR’s rewrite of comments regarding the “intermix” of urban development and wildlife habitat on the national forest, however, was stronger and more direct than the DOW’s version.

“The state is concerned that growth and development occur in environmentally sensitive ways,” the DNR added to the DOW’s comments.

The agency also called on the Forest Service to “work with local governments on planning and development issues.”

But in a section on new aerial tramways – meaning ski lifts – which the DOW strongly opposes, the DNR comments simply call for unspecified mitigation measures to deal with wildlife impacts.

The DOW’s comments offered a lengthy and vivid description of the difficulty of maintaining elk habitat under the Westin Lift at Vail, noting that elk no longer venture onto the corridor except at night, and then only in half their original numbers.

These comments did not survive the DNR rewrite.

The DOW called aerial tram corridors “a permanent loss of habitat,” while the DNR comments only discussed the impacts during construction and called the corridors “an ongoing habitat concern.” Road closures reopened Backcountry travel, particularly by all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, and related road and area closures proposed by the Forest Service have been a focal point of public controversy in the White River Forest plan.

Most of the comments provided by wildlife managers in Summit, Eagle and Garfield counties on travel management were conveyed as originally written, but recommendations for road and trail closures were dropped from the DNR version.

For example, a DOW suggestion that the Brush Creek area north of Silverthorne be closed to snowmobiles was diluted in the DNR version to say “recreational management should consider and mitigate the impact” on elk winter range.

In Eagle County, wildlife managers suggested travel management changes for 38 forest roads and eight trails.

DNR comments repeated DOW’s recommendation that 19 roads be opened to motorized vehicles, but dropped DOW’s suggestion that the other 19 roads and eight trails be closed to various sorts of motorized vehicles.

And while DNR comments repeat the DOW’s concerns about deer and elk winter habitat near Adam Mountain, south of Eagle, the umbrella agency dropped DOW’s comment calling for a closure to snowmobiles.

Near Rifle, wildlife managers’ pointed comments on bandit forest roads were dropped as well.

The DOW wrote, “We recommend that only those forest roads that are numbered on the present map remain open. This would close a large number of illegal roads.

“The White River Forest needs to vastly improve its travel plan, and also needs to greatly expand its law enforcement efforts. Education of the public will not stop or even significantly reduce illegal motor vehicle use.”

In the official DNR comments, however, these opinions do not appear.

In the Carbondale area, DOW recommendations to limit the use of three trails, including Perham Creek and the pipeline route along Yank Creek and Beaver Creek, to foot and horseback travel were cut from the DNR comments.

And DOW’s suggestion that Coal Basin near Redstone, acquired in recent years by the Forest Service, would be a “good place for motorized closure” – limiting uses to foot, horseback and mountain bikes – was also dropped from the official DNR comments.


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