White River plan subject of special Senate hearing | AspenTimes.com

White River plan subject of special Senate hearing

Jeremy Heiman

Senator Ben Campbell has called a group of Colorado witnesses to testify before a Senate Subcommittee on the proposed management plan for the White River National Forest.

A spokesman for Campbell said the purpose of the hearing is to air concerns about the plan. Witnesses will be questioned by members of the Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. The hearing is scheduled for Feb. 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Chris Changery, press secretary in Sen. Campbell’s Washington office, said Campbell called for the hearing because he said people have a lot of concerns.

“The amount of opposition was fairly overwhelming,” Changery said. “Senator Campbell said it had risen to the level of needing a full public airing.”

But Suzanne Jones, Assistant Regional Director for the Wilderness Society, said a look at comments received on the forest plan would probably show that the majority are favorable to most aspects of the draft plan.

In hearings of this type, witnesses testify and are questioned by the senators. They also submit their testimony in written form. The senators can follow up with written questions and answers.

Changery said he’s not certain what Sen. Campbell will do with ideas gleaned from the hearing. He said such a hearing can simply provide legislators with more information, but on the other hand, Senator Campbell could act after the information is collected.

“If he thinks legislation should be introduced to correct the situation, he’ll draft a bill,” Changery said.

Jones said if Campbell made any kind of legislative move, it would be to attack the funding for the Forest Service planning process, by adding a rider to the appropriations bill for the Interior Department.

“That’s typically where disgruntled legislators go when they want to upset the apple cart,” Jones said.

Vera Smith, conservation director for Colorado Mountain Club, a statewide hiking, climbing and skiing organization, said she’s hopeful that the hearing is intended to be informational and not the groundwork for some legislative action. But she fears otherwise.

“My suspicion is the senator is contemplating interfering legislatively in the NEPA process,” Smith said.

NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, lays out the public participation process for the selection of a preferred plan for national forests. Alternative D, the forest management proposal that is the “preferred alternative” in the selection process, favors preservation of wildlife habitat above recreational and industrial use of National Forest lands.

Beverly Compton, of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, will be one of two witnesses from the environmental community. Compton said she hopes to tell the subcommittee that, because Alternative D does chart a course toward preserving biological diversity, it’s a step in the right direction, but it could be even stronger.

“The best way to succeed economically in these mountain towns,” Compton said, “is to have a really healthy environment.”

Randy Parsons, president of the White River Forest Alliance, said he’s heard he has been asked to testify, though he hasn’t received any specifics on the event. The WRFA, which represents motorized recreationists and others, has objected to the selection of Alternative D.

Parsons said he thinks there’s some question as to whether the correct procedures were followed in creating the Environmental Impact Statement and the alternatives, from which Alternative D was selected.

The alternatives all take their themes to the extreme, he said, perhaps to put Alternative D in a better light.

Lynn Young, a public affairs official at the U.S. Forest Service regional offices in Denver, said the White River National Forest planners are accepting comments from many sources. If opinions surfaced as a result of Senator Campbell’s hearing, those would be considered as well. In the meantime, he said, the planning process is going on in accordance with the law.

“Our business is to go through the forest planning process as it’s laid out in the National Forest Management Act,” Young said.

The Forests and Public Lands group is a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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