Forest plan sure to raise brows today | AspenTimes.com

Forest plan sure to raise brows today

A five-year planning process that will dictate how the White River National Forest is managed was largely ignored by residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Expect that to change after today.

The final plan is scheduled to be released by the U.S. Forest Service this morning.

It will affect the trails that residents and tourists hike, bike and travel on with snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles.

It will determine what parts of the sprawling forest remain roadless, and it will settle whether additional terrain should receive the special wilderness designation.

It will indirectly and directly affect the economics of the valley – directly by setting quotas for how much timber can be harvested; indirectly by affecting recreation patterns and habits.

It will designate whether ski areas can expand their boundaries.

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“This is dictating the use of the White River National Forest for a long time to come,” said Jamey Fidel, spokesman for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, a conservation group that plans to carefully monitor the results.

The plan is essentially a management policy statement for the 2.3 million-acre forest. The philosophy of the plan is drawing national attention because the forest is home to some of the most stunning wild lands and most posh ski resorts in the country.

The White River National Forest is the fifth most heavily used forest in the United States, according to 1997-98 data. It is 12th largest in the country, 10th in the continental United States.

The Aspen Ranger District covers about 490,000 acres of Pitkin County. Combined with the Sopris Ranger District, it blankets about 77 percent of the entire county.

The old plan was created in 1984. This latest plan will guide Forest Service management for 15 years.

A draft plan released in 1999 indicated the Forest Service would favor management practices that promote biological diversity of the ecosystem. Since then, the agency has been lobbied hard by special interests and U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis to ease restrictions on motorized travel and allow greater expansion of ski areas.

The Forest Service is facing the impossible task of trying to satisfy – or at least placate – everyone from wilderness advocates to four-wheeling enthusiasts.

“There’s no doubt this is an exercise in compromise,” said Fidel. “That’s clear from the direction in the Forest Service’s multiple-use guidelines.”

Fidel said conservation groups believe the draft alternative favored by the Forest Service represented a compromise they could support. That preferred plan is known as Alternative D.

“What we’re going to be looking at [today] is how much the Forest Service compromised its initial alternative,” Fidel said.

Forest Service officials acknowledge that the final plan won’t please everyone. Appeals to part or all of the plan can be made for 90 days after formal publication. The feds expect appeals, based on experiences with other forest plans.

“Oh yeah, they’re extremely common,” said White River National Forest information specialist Vincent Picard. “In fact, we think it would be unusual not to have an appeal.”

Regional forester Rick Cables examines appeals and rules on whether changes are necessary. Litigation is possible after the administrative appeal process is completed.

Wilderness Workshop’s Fidel said is was premature for the group to decide if formal objections will be made to the plan. It is often unfortunate but necessary to file an appeal, he said.

“Certainly the Aspen Wilderness Workshop isn’t chomping at the bit to file an appeal,” Fidel said.