Greens nervous, McInnis confident over WRNF plan | AspenTimes.com

Greens nervous, McInnis confident over WRNF plan

Dennis Webb
Special to The Aspen Times

What U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis is hoping, environmentalists are fearing.

Both he and they think the final White River National Forest plan, due for release next Tuesday, will have less of a conservation thrust than the draft alternative the agency identified in 1999.

“We’re nervous that the conservation commitment that was in the draft plan will not be there in the final,” said Melinda Kassen, director of the Colorado Water Project for Trout Unlimited.

“What we’ll be looking for on Tuesday is backtracking,” she said in a conference call with other environmental group staffers.

For his part, McInnis, R-Grand Junction, hopes that the agency has taken to heart his urging to balance its conservation push with the importance of human uses.

The controversial draft plan proposed a higher priority on protecting the forest’s physical and biological resources than on human uses. That was a precedent-setting approach for a national forest.

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McInnis submitted an alternative forest plan of his own, which he said strikes a better balance between conservation and U.S. Forest Service’s traditional multiple-use philosophy.

“I’m confident – and I hope that I’ll be verified next Tuesday – I’m confident that we were able to intercede in a positive fashion,” said McInnis. “I think our input probably was positively taken and put to good use.”

McInnis pins his hopes in part on the fact that the WRNF resides within his 3rd Congressional District. He doubts the Forest Service would ignore the congressman elected to speak for the WRNF’s communities.

It also doesn’t hurt that he chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

“When you have those factors, it gives you power that, I think, if you use it correctly, can be used in a positive fashion,” he said.

Environmentalists worry that the current Republican-tilted balance of power in Washington could work against them in the final plan. Since the draft plan’s release, Republican George W. Bush succeeded Democrat Bill Clinton in the presidency and put a new emphasis on natural resource development on public lands.

“I think we’re all nervous, given the political shift,” said Kassen. “At the general level, the concern is that the final plan will go backward” from an environmental perspective.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, said the forest plan “will be a real test” to see if the Bush administration is serious about local control being important to public lands management, or if it will let Washington bureaucrats decide the forest’s future.

Whatever impacts political power may have had on the final plan, it doesn’t seem to count for much in terms of getting advance word on the top-secret contents of the plan.

So far, the Forest Service has kept the plan from leaking out prior to next Tuesday’s public unveiling.

On Thursday, the agency briefed Colorado’s congressional delegation, but that mostly involved explaining the mechanics of the release. The briefing offered no substantive, advance glimpse of what the plan contains, congressional staffers said.

“They told us the plan is a balanced one that protects water quality and wildlife habitat and provides certainty for all users,” said Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for 2nd District Congressman Mark Udall, D-Boulder.

That’s as far as the briefing went. “It’s vague at this point,” he added.

“They’re keeping this information very close to their vests. It leads me to believe no one is going to be completely happy,” Pacheco said. “The Forest Service clearly has to strike a balance among competing views and uses.”

It’s possible that the Forest Service has confidentially briefed McInnis and others, but if so, his spokesman, Blair Jones, said he is not aware of it.

The agency’s apparent refusal to give any politicians any advance indication of the plan’s contents surprised former White River forest supervisor Sonny LaSalle, now retired.

LaSalle said he suspects some of the political uproar over the draft plan had less to do with its contents than the manner in which the plan was revealed.

“Everybody got to see it all at once, and I think it caught some people by surprise,” he said.

Briefing federal and local politicians might have smoothed the way for the plan’s release, he said. Instead, like everyone else, they read a document that spoke upfront about putting the forest’s physical resources first, and people second.

“That really raises the ire of folks,” LaSalle said.

He said he understands the Forest Service’s desire to play favorites. Still, he said, the agency used to brief Congress on hot issues, he said, so they were better aware of details and less apt to jump to conclusions.

“The actual decision may not be so bad. It’s the way it’s delivered,” he said.

Josh Penry, staff director for McInnis’ forest subcommittee, said both WRNF Supervisor Martha Ketelle and Rick Cables, regional supervisor for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region, “have done yeoman’s work” at keeping interested parties in Congress apprised of the plan’s progress.

“There have been no surprises. They’ve been very good at keeping the communication lines open in terms of process, not substance,” he said.

LaSalle said he’s not familiar with the substance of the plan, but he’s sorry it has taken so long to be released.

At one point, the WRNF hoped to release the final plan by the end of 2000.

The delay of the plan over the years imposed an extra financial cost on the WRNF and distracted staff members who are “used to doing something on the ground,” LaSalle said.

( Post Independent Managing Editor Heather McGregor contributed to this report.)

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