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Fate of forest plan soon to be settled

The fate of controversial issues such as motorized access and the level of logging in the national forest surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley will be settled by top officials in the U.S. Forest Service within the next few weeks.

Appeals specialists in the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters are completing their review of 14 formal objections that were filed over the White River Forest Plan.

The plan was released in June 2002 after five years of analysis and public hearings. It provides a blueprint to how the Forest Service will manage the sprawling, 2.3 million acre national forest during the next decade.

Not everyone was happy with the way the plan came out. Environmentalists claimed that wildlife habitat and roadless areas were not adequately protected, and that studies on the needs of ski areas and the suitability of timber for harvesting were flawed or insufficient.

Off-road driving associations opposed closures of trails and roads in specific areas. They want terrain that has historically been open to mechanized travel to remain open, and they want more trails created.

Vail Resorts, Copper Mountain and Colorado Ski Country USA objected to wildlife designations that could prohibit expansion of some ski areas in the state.

Perhaps the least likely appeal came from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which sought more logging on the grounds that it would increase the amount of water running off forest land for the state’s development and agriculture.

The Natural Resources Department also wanted federal water rights limited in the White River National Forest and it objected to any designations of wild, scenic or recreational rivers, which would limit the amount of water that could be drawn from them.

All told, 14 appeals of the forest plan were filed by organizations or individuals before the fall 2002 deadline.

The White River supervisor’s office initially had the blessing of the regional and national Forest Service offices to work with the appellants in mediation to try to resolve the disputes.

“It just didn’t work out,” said forest planner Melanie Glossa, who believed many of the disagreements could have been resolved at the local level. The appellants couldn’t agree among themselves on whom they wanted to work with as a mediator, she said.

So the appeals were sent to a team of specialists in Washington, D.C., who review the appeals and the White River staff’s responses and defense of the forest plan.

That 15-member team is in place specifically to review all the disputes that arise when forest plans across the country are crafted, explained Cathy Kurtz, an appeals specialist in charge of coordinating the review of the White River issues.

The appeals specialists started their examination in September. They will likely be prepared to make recommendations by the end of April, Kurtz said.

Their recommendations will go to one of two associate deputy chiefs in the national forest system of the U.S. Forest Service. The associate deputy chiefs are near the top of the power pyramid of the agency, just below the chief and deputy chief.

Kurtz said politics isn’t part of the appeals review process. Her team is “pretty rigorous” about undertaking an unbiased review, she said.

Once the recommendations are submitted, the associate deputy chief will provide direction to the regional office of the Forest Service in Lakewood, Colo., and to the forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs. That direction will likely be provided before summer, according to Kurtz.

If the appellants don’t like the decisions, they do have another administrative avenue open to file an objection. They can make what is called a discretionary review. Lawsuits are also possible, although Kurtz said they are no longer very common.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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