DOW’s public relations nightmare | AspenTimes.com
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DOW’s public relations nightmare

An aggressive new management strategy at the state wildlife refuge in Basalt is proving to be an ecological success but a public relations nightmare. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has undertaken at least five major projects and area management changes in the last four years designed to improve wildlife habitat in the 5,000-acre Basalt State Wildlife Area. “In four years we’ve made great strides,” said Pat Tucker, who has implemented those changes since taking over as the area wildlife manager based in Glenwood Springs. Tucker said his boss in Grand Junction has also emphasized managing wildlife division lands for the greatest possible benefits of wildlife. The wildlife division has been working particularly hard to improve habitat for deer, which have been in decline in Colorado.There has also been a financial incentive for the management changes in Basalt and some of the other 230 wildlife areas across the state, according to DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury. He said federal financial aid was threatened because an audit showed some wildlife areas purchased partially or fully with federal dollars were being used for non-wildlife purposes, like recreation. Malmsbury said the federal government threatened to pull funding unless Colorado changed some of those conflicting uses. That jeopardized between $10 million and $12 million annually. So the wildlife division has taken a tough stance against activities that used to be common in the Basalt State Wildlife Area, which abuts town. Those steps have included: -Banning dogs and bicyclists from the wildlife refuge’s trails. The wildlife division claimed people ignored the leash law so it was easiest just to ban dogs altogether. They said mountain bikers were creating new trails and fragmenting habitat. Basalt bikers responded with a petition to reopen established trails and they appealed to DOW director Russell George to intervene. He upheld Tucker’s decision. -Terminating a decades-old lease by the town government to use water from Lucksinger Spring. Wildlife division officials said they needed the water to increase irrigation for grass needed by deer. The abrupt change angered members of the Town Council. -Erecting fences around some of the refuge’s boundaries. DOW officials claimed the fencing was needed to keep neighboring private property owners from infringing on the state lands. Critics claim the fencing was overkill and unsightly. -Allowing commercial uses of the Lake Christine shooting range, apparently without proper permits. Complaints about the shooting range roll in with the regularity of clouds on an August afternoon in Colorado. But a new twist to the latest complaints are allegations that the wildlife division didn’t acquire necessary permits from Eagle County to farm out operations.-Plowing ahead with plans for clear-cutting just above the Aspen Junction subdivision on about 100 acres to improve foraging for deer. This latest project is being undertaken in conjunction with Colorado State Forest Service, which is reducing hazardous fuels next to the subdivision.The proposal has produced significant opposition not only from neighbors but also from concerned Basalt residents. Tom Newland, who lives close to the project site, said the wildlife division’s process and level of cooperation with the public have been disappointing. “It’s pretty apparent to us that they don’t care what we want,” he said. Newland said he is used to the way the U.S. Forest Service conducts business on its projects. It sends information out to interested parties well before a project is planned, collects public input and often studies alternatives.The wildlife division did next to nothing to inform adjacent landowners about the project before it was scheduled this spring. The agency was prepared to reduce the thickly wooded hillside to five juniper and/or pion trees per acre as well as leave the standing dead trees. The project was delayed when the state forest service became concerned about the potential to attract beetles. It was rescheduled for this coming winter. Jonathan Lowsky, wildlife biologist for Pitkin County, said the quality of management of state wildlife areas varies based on the philosophy of area managers. He said many of the steps that Tucker has taken in Basalt are “sound from an ecological conservation perspective.” But Lowsky said the wildlife division needs to polish its public relations skills when it comes to explaining management practices. An open house held Tuesday night on the clear-cut project, for example, should have been held months ago, Lowsky said. He also suggested the DOW could compromise with neighbors by reducing the number of trees it cuts while still improving habitat. “The last thing they want is the general public to be anti-DOW,” said Lowsky. Tucker acknowledged that there is room for improvement in communicating with Basalt-area residents. However, some of the problems stem from the wildlife division’s rather unique mission, he said. Unlike the U.S. Forest Service which manages its lands for many uses, the wildlife division is a single-purpose agency – managing lands for the benefit of wildlife. That mission, said Tucker, isn’t always clear to the public. People view lands such as the Basalt State Wildlife Area as open space that should be available to all sorts of recreational pursuits, he said. The same problems arise in communities surrounding other state wildlife areas. “We have to make hard decisions and the locals sometimes don’t like it,” said Malmsbury.[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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