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Limited Access in the White River Natural Forest in Colorado

April 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: The White River National Forest in central Colorado is one of the most heavily used in the whole country. It’s a winter playground for snowmobile enthusiasts, and contains some of America’s biggest ski resorts: Vail, Aspen, Keystone, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. In the summer, the forest hosts tens of thousands of hikers, campers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

But there are now so many people that the National Forest Service is considering a dramatic change in the way this forest and potentially all national forests will be managed in the future. Forest supervisor Martha Ketelle says something has to be done.

MARTHA KETELLE, Forest Supervisor, White River National Forest: In 1984, we had 5 million visitor days on the forest. In 1999, we had 12 million visitor days. And when we look at that 2020 and we look at the population increases projected in Colorado, our counties in the front range, we can project 20 million visitors. So the question we have to ask is: can we accommodate 20 million visits in 2020, or do we need to find a way to limit the visits that are being made?

TOM BEARDEN: All national forests are required to review their management plan every ten years. White River managers held a series of public meetings last year to explore ways to deal with the surge of recreationists. They wrote a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS. It listed a range of alternatives, from no action at one extreme to extraordinarily restrictive on the other. They chose one labeled Alternative D and that choice has a lot of people up in arms. Alternative D would permanently close some roads; it would limit areas for snowmobiling and back-country skiing; restrict mountain biking to trails, to eliminate so-called “pirate trails;” and turn 47,000 acres of forest into wilderness where no mechanized access is permitted, not even bicycles. Ketelle characterizes Alternative D as middle-of- the-road.

MARTHA KETELLE: Our preferred alternative in the draft is one that emphasizes land stewardship, protecting ecosystems, and providing for a habitat for the range of species that exist on the White River, and continues to make, to acknowledge the fact that the White River is a major recreation forest in the system, and maintain and increase, slightly, the use for recreation. But in general we’ve been… it’s been considered by the public as one that favors the ecosystem over human involvement in the landscape.

TOM BEARDEN: Many environmentalists applaud it, saying it was about time that the needs of wildlife and the ecosystem finally began to take precedence over human activities. But others saw it as an attack on recreation, a thinly disguised effort to create forest preserves that would eventually completely exclude humans. Opponents believe the White River plan will become the template for every other national forest, that millions of Americans will no longer be allowed to enjoy their own public lands. Colorado Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell organized a congressional hearing in February.

SENATOR BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL, (R) Colorado: My big concern with this was that people did not have a voice in the implementation of it.

TOM BEARDEN: Campbell insisted the Forest Service extend the public comment period on the plan beyond the 60 days originally scheduled.

SENATOR BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: We’ve gotten many calls and letters from people saying that the public hearings that were done by the Forest Service were loaded by the environmental community, and their voices simply weren’t heard.

DOROTHEA FARRIS, County Commissioner, Pitkin County: Are we really doing them a disservice?

TOM BEARDEN: Dorothea Farris disagrees. She’s a county commissioner in Pitkin County, home to the three Aspen ski areas.

DOROTHEA FARRIS: Just because they weren’t agreed with, they begin to think they weren’t heard. They’ve really been heard, people just didn’t all agree with them.

TOM BEARDEN: One man who feels the Forest Service has ignored him is Jack Welch.

JACK WELCH, President, Blueribbon Coalition: It’s a biological, preservationist plan, and really eliminates man’s ability to use the forest for recreation.

TOM BEARDEN: Welch represents a national snowmobiling group called the Blueribbon Coalition. He says despite assertions to the contrary, Alternative D would sharply curtail all motorized access to the forest.

JACK WELCH: To cut snowmobiling by 50%, to cut motorized summer recreation by about 70%, just doesn’t really fit into what I would call the multiple use goals of the Forest Service.

VERA SMITH, Conservation Director, Colorado Mountain Club: And she’ll have the design ready to go.

JACK WELCH, President, Blueribbon Coalition: It’s a biological, preservationist plan, and really eliminates man’s ability to use the forest for recreation.

TOM BEARDEN: Welch represents a national snowmobiling group called the Blueribbon Coalition. He says despite assertions to the contrary, Alternative D would sharply curtail all motorized access to the forest.

JACK WELCH: To cut snowmobiling by 50%, to cut motorized summer recreation by about 70%, just doesn’t really fit into what I would call the multiple use goals of the Forest Service.

VERA SMITH, Conservation Director, Colorado Mountain Club: And she’ll have the design ready to go.

TOM BEARDEN: But Vera Smith has little sympathy for that argument. She’s the conservation director of the Colorado Mountain Club, a 10,000-member climbing and hiking organization.

VERA SMITH: Roads are really clearly the number-one physical impact to our landscape, through sedimentation and erosion that they cause.

TOM BEARDEN: Smith says some motorized recreationists go off the main roads, creating new sources of erosion and interfering with wildlife. She believes it’s time to reduce the impact of vehicles, and says pedestrian use ought to take precedence because there are more users on foot than in vehicles.

VERA SMITH: When we look in the White River National Forest, we see that non-motorized users or non-motorized use is about 11 times as popular as motorized use in the summertime.

TOM BEARDEN: Smith says the numbers came from Forest Service sources. But the agency concedes there is no systematic data collection process on recreational impact. They make estimates, based on the anecdotal reports of Forest Service employee contacts with the public.

TOM STONE, County Commissioner, Eagle County: Then we’ll be short one associate member if –

TOM BEARDEN: Tom Stone sees a pattern there. Stone is an Eagle County commissioner, where 65% of the land is owned by the federal government. He says the Forest Service can’t point to any rigorous scientific evidence to prove the forest is actually threatened.

TOM STONE: There is no scientific basis. As a matter of fact, we’ve had a very difficult time finding out why the Forest Service has decided on certain prescriptions for the forest. They say that it’s based on stream health, for instance, however when we try to find their data, and I’d call it, to a large degree, data-free analysis.

MARTHA KETELLE: We do a lot of inventory. It’s one of the… Inventory and monitoring, it’s one of the requirements that we have on an annual basis. I think that the Forest Service does a good job of looking at the… looking at the science that goes with the management, and evaluating the effects of our management. I think that’s an area that we want to improve on in the future.

TOM BEARDEN: The single largest recreational activity on the White River Forest is skiing. The industry usually speaks with one voice on policy issues, but not this time. The Aspen Ski Company supports Alternative D, but the Vail resorts think it’s too restrictive. Vail’s business, unlike other resorts in Colorado and other parts of the country, is growing, and they’d like to expand. But Vail Resorts’ President Andy Daly says Alternative D would prevent that.

ANDY DALY, President, Vail Resorts, Inc.: Alternative D provides for no expansion of capacity, either within the existing ski area permit areas, or outside, so there’s absolutely no ability for ski areas to grow under this alternative.

TOM BEARDEN: Daly says no expansion means a degraded ski experience.

ANDY DALY: The Forest Service itself, in the draft EIS, has indicated what the major ramifications would be: One, overcrowding; two, an inability for the ski areas in the White River National Forest to compete with other western ski areas; and third, a growing price for skiing, particularly in a market that has had the most competitive skiing opportunities probably found anywhere in the United States. So, it means to the average skier, it means they’re going to have to pay a lot more.

TOM BEARDEN: But environmentalists say the resorts want to expand onto more Forest Service property mainly so they can sell the private land they own at the base areas to make a huge profit. Commissioner Stone finds it ironic that environmentalists were once staunch advocates of what they termed clean, sustainable tourism.

TOM STONE: They’ve shut down mining, they’ve shut down logging operations, to a large degree. And what they, the environmentalists, suggested in those communities was that, “well, you’re going to have to change to a new form of economy, and that new form is recreation.” Well, now recreation is no longer an acceptable form of using the forest.

VERA SMITH: Yeah, it is one of the ironies that has occurred. Certainly back in the previous decades, the big enemies of the environmental community were the timber industry, the mining industry, and grazing. Now recreation has burgeoned into such a popular activity that it’s actually becoming, maybe, equally as damaging in some cases.

TOM BEARDEN: The public comment period for the White River Forest plan will remain open until Nay 9. Senator Campbell is already warning the Forest Service that any plan had better be balanced.

SENATOR BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL, (R) Colorado: I can tell you right now Alternative D is not going to be used in the form it is in, now. I don’t care if it says “a,” “b,” “d,” “z,” what, it’s got to have some kind of a compromise balance in it. So if they use Alternative D to take in other concepts, and to make it more of a multiple-use, and to, you know, do some things, I could probably support that. As it’s written now, I can’t, and won’t.

TOM BEARDEN: He says if the final plan is skewed toward anybody’s special agenda, Congress won’t appropriate the funds to implement it.