County commissioners’ look to play an active role
By Toni Todd
The United States Forest Service typically revises its forest management plans every 15 to 20 years. The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest, or GMUG, has become a long-running exception to that practice.
“The last plan was created in 1983,” said GMUG forest supervisor, Scott Armentrout in a presentation to the Gunnison County commissioners this past Tuesday.
“Most of my current staff weren’t born when this was written,” said Armentrout.
According to the USFS website, the process to revise the GMUG management plan officially began June 2. Armentrout said the Forest Service cannot be successful in its planning process without input from county commissioners throughout the GMUG region. “Your issues need to be heard. You represent everybody in Gunnison County.”
Armentrout explained the planning process and the timeline associated with it. The first phase, he said, is assessment. This is an initial, informal, non-NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) evaluation of the current plan, comparing it with everything we know to be different today. The assessment looks at changes in such things as use and science. Mountain biking was still in its infancy in 1983, for example, and what we know now that we didn’t know then about how the impacts of climate change, beetle kill, forest ecology, water, etc. will influence how we maintain the health of the forest and balance uses into the future.
“This isn’t going to solve immediate issues we’re dealing with today,” said Armentrout, “but this will solve future, long-range concerns.”
The assessment phase will include open-house–style meetings, where people can learn how public lands are managed and can contribute their own observations, ideas and recommendations. Counties will be asked to co-host these events.
The first open-house forum for Gunnison is scheduled for July 27.
Armentrout said that, while meetings are crucial, too many can backfire. “We don’t want to exhaust people,” he said. Instead, the USFS will add a web option so people can follow the process and contribute that way, too.
The USFS hopes to complete the assessment phase of the new GMUG forest plan by the end of 2017.
Phase 2 moves the plan along toward a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This will involve more meetings and a continued web presence through spring of 2018. It’s at this stage the county will be asked to officially sign on as a cooperating agency. Phase 3 is where the heaviest lifting begins, ensuring that the plan complies with NEPA and completion of the final EIS.
“We want to finish it in three years,” said Armentrout. “That seems like a long time, but that’s really a short timeline for planning. We want to make sure everybody’s heard, and we have something that comes out the other end that’s useful.”
Commissioners gave every indication they’ll sign on as cooperating agency when the time comes, and will do what they can in support of the process until then.
Armentrout assured the new plan would incorporate recently completed travel management plans, along with the Colorado Roadless Rule. The revised document, he said, is meant to be more clear and adaptive than the old plan.
“More user-friendly to the public?” asked County commissioner Phil Chamberland.
“Yes,” said Armentrout.
County commissioner Jonathan Houck suggested that the county’s recent efforts in pursuit of sustainable tourism should inform the plan. “We’ve been drilling in pretty deep with that,” he said, citing One Valley Prosperity Project discussions and the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative. “We want that effort to be included in this process.”
Recent incidents in Pitkin, Irwin and Taylor Park, “or as people have been calling it, ‘Thunderdome,’” said Houck, all point to the need for a new approach to managing recreational use of public lands. “It’s not that uses shouldn’t be permitted,” said Houck, “but there’s a lack of enforcement.”
Armentrout said the Forest Service must make tactical decisions from year to year to determine what’s enforced where. “It is a huge need in many ways,” he said, “as is education.”
“Education is a great tool,” added Chamberland. “I’ve seen it work.”
“Where does this plan address oil and gas, and mining in Gunnison county?” asked Houck.
The plan will “set up broad requirements,” said Armentrout, to include specifics for managing the North Fork area.
Houck asked how the plan will address forest health, especially in light of widespread beetle kill. USFS planning staff officer Clay Speas, who accompanied Armentrout, said the plan will incorporate best possible projections of changes to the landscape.
“We have the luxury of [beetle kill] having come here later than a lot of places,” said Chamberland, “so we can see the aftermath in other places.”
Dispersed camping, changes in the nature of camping, and general bad behavior in places like Taylor Park and Tin Cup were discussed at length, pointing to a need for more active management on the part of the Forest Service in many areas that have seen explosions of recreational use in recent years.
“What we need to discourage is someone who says, ‘I’m going to go disperse camp with my living room in tow,’” said Houck.
“We’re really looking into the Tin Cup situation,” said Armentrout. “We were approached by multiple folks asking, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’”
The bottom line, he said, is that, when recreating in the forest, you still have to be a good neighbor. “You can’t be loud, you can’t leave feces on the ground, you can’t leave trash on the ground, you can’t shoot over people’s houses,” he said.
“The neighbors and everyone else up there have reached a point where they need us to do more,” he added.
Houck mentioned the Green Lake access controversy near Irwin, where a Forest Service road that passes through private mining claims is the source of growing conflict.
“I understand people’s frustration,” said Armentrout. “We can’t force that landowner to open that gate. We do feel it’s a public road, but at this point, we advise people to take alternative routes.”
“The landowner sees it one way, the Forest Service is seeing it another,” said Houck. “I’m worried that someone’s going to get hurt.”
The burden falls on the Forest Service to prove the road is public, Armentrout explained. The process, he said, is long and complex. The first step is for the USFS to assess the road and take statements. Then, they must present a legal brief to the assistant U.S. attorney’s office.
“They evaluate that case and determine whether they’ll take that case to court. That’s a process that takes months, or actually years before we can reach a decision in court. Now, think about that scenario across three million acres, and multiple mining claims,” Armentrout said.
Houck asked if that approach would be applied to multiple property owners at a time along the same road, or if it would be accomplished one mining claim at a time.
“We could establish an historical precedent for that entire road,” replied Armentrout, “but we would be unlikely to file a case against all landowners along that road at once.”
County commissioner John Messner suggested that, as a cooperating agency, the county would do well to add “a few steps in between those steps” of the Forest Service’s planning process “to be sure we stay involved and give people opportunity to be heard.”