“There are lots of places around the country where people are working together, but not like here.”
By Toni Todd
The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest recently named Matthew McCombs as the Gunnison Ranger District’s new district manager. He introduced himself to Gunnison County commissioners at a recent work session. Praising the congenial relationship between Gunnison County and the US Forest Service, he said he hopes to make it even stronger.
“I think it’s incredibly important to have a close, frank and easygoing relationship,” McCombs began. “As we march forward, the already incredibly positive working relations we have with Gunnison County just continues to get stronger.”
McCombs insisted that, while there are communities across the country working in concert with their local forest service agencies, more often than not, that’s not the case.
“In North Carolina, it was a bloodbath. People couldn’t get to that shared-vision kind of place. We are certainly blessed here. The working environment is light years ahead of other parts of the country,” McCombs said.
McCombs emphasized three operations tenets by which he and his staff will operate. “I require of myself and of my staff that we operate with complete responsiveness,” he began. “You will find from me that I’m very against saying ‘no.’ I would rather pull a team together and figure out how to make what’s needed happen.”
Of course, McCombs acknowledged there will be occasions when saying “yes” isn’t possible. “If we can’t address what you need,” he said, “it’s important that we provide information why we can’t address it.”
McCombs insisted transparency is also paramount. “Never not telling the truth, and never not telling the hard truth,” he said. “They’re two different things as far as I’m concerned.”
Finally, he said, being a good neighbor is key to stewarding public lands. “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your neighbors,” he said. “The tension between multiple users is built in. It means multiple moral flags planted on the same high ground. As an agency, and as a district, our philosophy is embracing shared stewardship. I don’t think I can accomplish the goals of my agency and my jurisdiction without the help of local communities.”
Commissioner Jonathan Houck noted the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative as a local example of stakeholders coming together in that spirit. He also expressed concern for the explosion of recreational use of the forest.
“Rights and responsibilities used to be tied to each other,” said Houck. “We don’t seem to have that anymore. People feel it’s their right, because it’s their public lands, but don’t take the responsibility of leave no trace and things like that.”
Commissioner Phil Chamberland noted the difference between national parks, such as Yellowstone, and open forest, such as the GMUG. “You’re expecting a certain type of experience,” he said of would-be visitors to the park. “Less than a third of visitors get off the main road. They’re managing experiences and managing user expectations.
“They also have revenue because people have paid. Visitors are thinking, ‘I’m expecting a certain experience and I’m expected to act a certain way,’” he continued, “but when they get off the road on Kebler Pass…” he left that hanging, implying that it’s more an anything-goes free-for-all on the open forest.
“Helping folks transition in their minds to expecting an experience that’s a little less un-refined,” said McCombs, “will be the challenge in managing recreation in the GMUG in the future. “We haven’t really kept up with technology,” he added. “Four-wheelers have changed the game.”
Commissioner John Messner mentioned the county’s new Sustainable Tourism and Recreation Committee is ready and willing to work with local public lands agencies.
McCombs acknowledged the merits of that, and applauded local efforts such as Mountain Manners and the Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association’s Conservation Corps.
“Our highest ideal,” said McCombs, “is to protect this idea of public lands. There’s no other nation that’s ever done this. The shared ownership, it’s a really unique, American thing. The key is to move toward balance when it comes to shared uses, to protect the quality of the resource, and at the same time, try to find that balance.”
Houck asked how the Gunnison District can address the needs of local businesses more quickly and efficiently. He gave the example of a shuttle service that ferries cyclists to ride Monarch Pass. If that outfit reaches its permitted limit on the number of people it’s allowed to shuttle, how can they get their permit re-issued to increase those numbers or the length of their season without waiting for the next update to the travel plan or going through a NEPA process, when it’s clear the impacts of a few additional riders will be minimal. “How do we increase the nimbleness to make these adjustments more readily?”
“So, you’re speaking adaptation,” said McCombs. “It’s 100 percent fundamentally based on trust. You’re giving the Forest Service a great deal of discretion to do things or not do things without amending the plan with extensive public input. It’s us saying, ‘Hey, rangers, you have a boatload of discretion. Use it.’ You don’t have to have a planning effort, you don’t have to do NEPA with every decision. If it’s adding additional benefits to grow a business or a use without having detrimental impact on the resource, do it.”
McCombs acknowledged that business on the forest must be regulated to some degree, but he and the Forest Service support outdoor businesses in general. “We think it’s a great way to connect people with their public lands. They [the businesses] provide services the forest service can never provide. So, it’s a matter of sitting down with the permittee, and then if it all looks good, saying ‘You’re good to go.’”
McCombs said the Forest Service is looking seriously at implementing a rolling plan concept versus the current, 20-year plan revision. The idea is to adjust the plan on an ongoing basis as the need for change is identified, rather than waiting for a mountain of needs to accumulate over time.
McCombs said he’d recently met with the Gunnison Stockgrowers. “In other places, the conflict with them has become violent. Here, it’s a whole different environment. Here, they feel like their presence on the land is valued.
“There are lots of places around the country where people are working together,” McCombs said, “but not like here.”