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U.S. Forest Service evaluates local lands for wilderness designation potential

Several areas near Crested Butte included in report, recommendations slated for Spring 2019

By Katherine Nettles

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released a draft Wilderness Evaluation Report earlier this month for the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUC), describing how more than 40 areas in the Gunnison and Paonia Ranger Districts, among others, were rated for wilderness features.

The purpose of the plan revision is to determine what, if any, areas to ultimately recommend to the U.S. Congress for designation into the National Wilderness Preservation System. The public is now being asked to comment on the findings.

Wilderness designation offers the highest level of public lands protection while still providing for multiple uses such as wildlife habitat, headwaters protection, and recreation.

The GMUG plan revision process is in the second stage of four, having first gone through an inventory of lands deemed appropriate to evaluate. The inventory included areas that span at least 5,000 acres or are adjacent to existing wilderness; do not have motor vehicle access; and do not have other “substantially noticeable human impacts on the land,” according to the USFS Inventory Criteria documents.

The evaluation report describes how closely each area matches criteria set forth as wilderness characteristics: apparent naturalness; opportunities for solitude or unconfined recreation; sufficient size; features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value; and degree to which the area may be managed to preserve such characteristics.

Lands assessed in the report within the Gunnison and Paonia Ranger Districts that are near Crested Butte include Castle, Poverty Gulch, Whetstone Mountain, Gothic Mountain, Schofield Pass, Brush Creek, Spring Creek, Union Park, Taylor Canyon, Mount Emmons, Beckwith Mountain, and McClure Pass.

All were evaluated as moderately characteristic of wilderness except for Mount Emmons, marked as low; Castle, marked high; and Beckwith Mountain, marked high.

The next step is for public feedback, which will be taken through September 5. Then the USFS will re-evaluate based on any compelling new insights provided.

Matt Reed, public lands director with High Country Conservation Advocates, has been working closely with the Forest Service throughout the evaluations and emphasized the importance of specific public feedback.

“The Forest Service is looking for detailed, substantive comments. Not just, ‘I love wilderness,’ or ‘I think we need more wilderness (or less),’ but more detailed and intimate knowledge of these places. What did they get right or wrong? We want people providing photographs, documents, on-the-ground knowledge of these landscapes that help the Forest Service come up with accurate characterizations and evaluations,” said Reed.

Since the outset of the process the GMUG reports having received more than 9,000 written comments and more than 500 original letters from the public, “sharing concerns and ideas around issues ranging from economics to ecosystems to education,” according to the Forest Planning Team via e-mail.

From there, a draft plan moves to stage three, the analysis, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is scheduled for release in the spring of 2019. The DEIS leads to the last stage, the final recommendation to be presented to the federal government in 2020.

According the GMUG, Forest Plans are supposed to be revised every 15 years at most. The current Forest Service plan for the GMUG is from 1983, and according to Reed is the oldest and still operating plan in the United States. In the early 2000s the GMUG underwent the same extensive process of drafting an updated forest plan with recommendations, and released a DEIS in 2007. But it was never signed by the planning committee and was eventually scrapped.

“The GMUG’s 34-year-old Forest Plan is outdated, increasingly irrelevant, and unable to manage the tremendous user growth and environmental changes that the landscape has experienced over the past three decades,” according to the HCCA forest revision webpage.

“This is a dynamic process, with public input at every stage,” said Reed, who underscored the importance of following through this time. “The decisions that are made today really shape public land for decades to come. We cherish wild, public lands and opportunities afforded for our recreation and also the space for wildlife. Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley have participated in this process, and I expect that they will continue to engage… This puts the power in our hands to be a part of a wonderful opportunity.”

Public comments can be submitted via e-mail to gmugforestplan@fs.fed.us.

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