A U.S. Forest Service position that heavily influences management of millions of acres of public lands surrounding Aspen opened unexpectedly on Monday.Martha Ketelle announced she will resign as forest supervisor of the White River National Forest to take a promotion with the agency in Washington, D.C. The forest supervisor is the highest-ranking official in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, which stretches from south of Aspen to north of Meeker, and from east of Keystone to Rifle.The White River is the most visited forest in the country, and its 11 ski areas on forest lands rack up more business than any other forest.Ketelle announced her decision internally yesterday and confirmed her promotion later for The Aspen Times. In her new position, she will help set national policy on recreation issues, such as the controversial fee demonstration project that allows special fees to be charged for visits to specific sites. She will also work on business plans and marketing efforts for the Forest Service.Ketelle, who has been on leave from her position this year while attending special senior executive training courses offered by the Forest Service, said she won’t return to her job in Glenwood Springs before taking the new job in Washington in the fall. She was forest supervisor for seven years.
Ketelle’s departure comes as several major issues are developing or are about to be decided in the sprawling national forest.The forest supervisor’s staff is working on a controversial planning document which will determine where motorized vehicles will be allowed to travel and what routes will be closed.In addition, the forest is under increasing pressure by the Bush administration to allow greater exploration and production of natural gas. Lands in the Thompson Creek Roadless Area, southwest of Carbondale, for example, were leased to an oil and gas company last month.The administration is also pressuring forest officials to make it easier to approve some timber sales and logging projects.Although laws and regulations dictate much of the Forest Service’s direction, the top official has a huge influence by deciding priorities for the staff, dedicating staff resources to various issues and using some discretion.”They certainly have some latitude and can make decisions that lean one way or another,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, an influential conservation group.
Shoemaker noted that Ketelle exercised some of her discretion during development of the White River National Forest Plan – a blueprint completed in June 2002 that will dictate how the forest is managed for the next 10 to 15 years.Ketelle shocked observers by favoring an alternative which gave priority to management practices that promoted biological diversity. Conservationists hailed the proposal as a groundbreaker in favor of wildlife and nature.”That proposal became the lightning rod for a lot of controversy,” said Shoemaker. “The old guard didn’t like it.”The Forest Service was flooded with comments from pro-business interests and political pressure from U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis to alter the plan’s direction. The final management plan scaled the emphasis on environment. Ketelle said she believes the final plan was more “balanced.”There was speculation that she fell out of political favor within the Forest Service for her initial direction. But Ketelle responded yesterday that five years after the controversy she is accepting “another excellent position” within the Forest Service. That proves her actions didn’t harm her career, she said.She agreed that the forest supervisor position can be influential.
“It’s lessened over the decades in the agency, but there’s still the potential for significant decisions to be made that will have sweeping effects, long-ranging effects,” Ketelle said.The management of a forest can also be influenced by the associations and partnerships a supervisor makes, she noted. For example, one supervisor might tend to be more closely associated with conservationists while another might come from a logging background.The Forest Service will embark on a process that will require months to name Ketelle’s successor. The position will likely garner high interest, according to Forest Service estimates.Shoemaker said that because the White River National Forest is so high profile, with the Aspen and Vail ski areas and stunning natural attractions, he expects the Bush administration to get directly involved in naming Ketelle’s successor.”I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to ramrod a right-wing [candidate] in before there is a regime change,” said Shoemaker.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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