No excuse for Forest Service’s lack of disclosure |

No excuse for Forest Service’s lack of disclosure

The expansion of Snowmass Ski Area onto Burnt Mountain has been an issue of intense local interest for more than a decade.The Aspen Skiing Co., the Colorado Division of Wildlife, local environmentalists, backcountry enthusiasts and plenty of others have weighed Burnt Mountain’s value as undeveloped forest and wildlife habitat against its potential value as recreational skiing terrain.Burnt Mountain has occupied the headlines in both Aspen newspapers time and again over the years. It’s been roundly debated, analyzed, tested, surveyed and just about everything else you can do to a piece of ground without developing it. Its western edge actually has been developed in recent years, with the Long Shot ski run. But most of the expanse remains fairly pristine.So why, when the U.S. Forest Service made a recent decision about Burnt Mountain’s future, did the agency choose to clam up about it?It’s a mystery to us. But it’s true. A February decision by White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson – actually an affirmation of an earlier decision by a district ranger – officially opened the door to further ski development on Burnt Mountain, something that just might interest a few residents of the upper Roaring Fork Valley.The Forest Service “announced” this decision to the public by doing the absolute minimum: publishing a legal notice in the newspaper, in this case the Post Independent in Glenwood Springs. Mind you, a legal notice does not represent an effort to tell the newspaper about a story; it’s a legal obligation that public agencies meet by buying advertising space and inserting very fine print, deep inside the paper. It also informed individuals who had submitted official comments on the Skico’s proposal.Why did the Roaring Fork Valley’s biggest landowner choose to do the bare minimum on this decision? Because it was too complicated, one Forest Service official told us. Because it was a decision that merely validated an earlier decision at the tail end of an extremely bureaucratic, multiyear environmental impact process. In other words, we wouldn’t have understood, so they didn’t tell us. By the way, the Forest Service official added, the Aspen Skiing Co. “concurred” that the decision needn’t be shared with the news departments at the Aspen papers. With all due respect to the Skico, it should not determine how Forest Service decisions involving its development applications are shared with the public. It’s a conflict of interest.We should mention here that the Aspen Daily News ran a story on the Burnt Mountain decision before this newspaper did, but even that story appeared Wednesday, several weeks after the decision was made. And the issue, beyond which newspaper got the story first, is one of appropriate public notification. Most upper valley residents rely on the local media for information about the White River National Forest and its actions. As a public agency, the Forest Service should err on the side of openness. And it should have notified the Aspen news media about this important public-land decision. There’s really no excuse.

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