Forest Service maintains decision wasn’t concealed
The U.S. Forest Service pledged Thursday to change the way it discloses information after it kept upper valley residents in the dark for three weeks about an important decision involving skiing on Burnt Mountain.The White River National Forest supervisor’s office said it will do a better job of informing Aspen-area residents when it makes decisions that affect the agency’s Aspen District. Currently, legal notices about decisions by Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafso run only the Glenwood Springs Post Independent – even when the decisions affect ski areas in Aspen and Snowmass.Kristi Ponozzo, a spokeswoman for the supervisor’s office, said there probably aren’t a lot of Aspen readers who scan the legals of the Glenwood newspaper.”We need to make sure that when decisions are made up in Aspen there’s at least a legal notice in the Aspen paper,” Ponozzo said.That’s the way it used to work. Decisions by the Aspen District ranger used to run in legal notices in The Aspen Times. Sometimes news releases would be issued as well.The Forest Service decided last year that the forest supervisor needs to issue all ski area decisions rather than the district ranger. Once that change was made, the Forest Service started running its legal notices exclusively in Glenwood, even on issues vital to Aspen.”We literally didn’t think of it,” Ponozzo said. “It was a huge, huge oversight on our part and something we will rectify.”The oversight came to light when Gustafson issued a decision Feb. 16 that the Aspen Skiing Co. proceed with a plan to use more of Burnt Mountain. The Skico plans to thin trees to expand skiing on about 500 acres east of the Long Shot trail that already exists on Burnt Mountain.Documents the Forest Service released to the public in January indicated no decision was expected on the Burnt Mountain plan until April. When the decision was reached in February, the agency informed individuals who had submitted official comments on the Skico’s proposal, but it didn’t alert the public.Jim Stark, who handled the environmental assessment for the Aspen Ranger District, said the project has a long, confusing history. In particular, it is perplexing because Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook issued a decision just one year ago giving the green light to the Burnt Mountain expansion.The Forest Service rescinded that decision when an internal review concluded the forest supervisor needed to make all ski area decisions. So the environmental assessment started over, and Gustafson reached the same conclusion to allow the expansion of Burnt Mountain terrain.Adding to the jumble is the fact that the Forest Service issued the general approval for Burnt Mountain in 1994. Further review was needed on specific details.”People were getting confused,” Stark said. He also contended there wasn’t widespread community interest in the topic.Stark said a Skico planning official agreed that issuing a notice about Gustafson’s Feb. 16 decision would be confusing.Gustafson said she was unaware the Skico’s opinion had been sought and that it had no bearing on her decision on how to handle notification of the decision. “I personally had no communication with the Aspen Skiing Company about how I would announce my decision,” she said.Gustafson said there was no effort to hide the information.”None whatsoever. We have a basic responsibility to be transparent in what we’re doing.”She said the Forest Service team working on the issue advised her that no special notification was warranted about the decision.”It was not going to be a surprise to anyone or one of particular concern,” she said.In retrospect, Gustafson said, the Forest Service might have “misjudged” on the issue. “I don’t think we can ever go too far” in informing people about decisions, she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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