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Several local rivers on list for Wild & Scenic designations

40-plus miles in GMUG; USFS taking public comment through March 22

By Katherine Nettles

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released its Wild and Scenic Eligibility Report Tuesday, February 19 and is now taking input and feedback on the draft as part of the process to determine which rivers and streams should be considered for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (NWSRS).

The report identified 40-plus miles of eligible rivers within the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG): In the local area, Oh-Be-Joyful Creek and tributaries (including Blue Lake tributary, Dippold Basin tributary, Peeler Basin tributary and Redwell Basin tributary); West Elk Creek; West Soap Creek; and Copper Creek and tributaries (including Copper Lake tributary, Triangle Pass tributary and Queen Basin tributaries) were all included.

The process applied to each river segment included determination of its free-flowing condition, evaluation of outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) and preliminary classification as wild, scenic or recreational.

To be considered free-flowing, “a river needed to maintain its natural stream functions, including a natural flood regime, natural sinuosity and channel shifting, natural bank erosion, and natural bed load and debris movement,” according to the report. There was no minimum flow or temporal or spatial continuity of flow required, as it “must only be sufficient to sustain or compliment the ORVs for which the river would be recommended.”

ORV categories included scenery, recreation, geology, significance to fish populations and/or habitat, significance to wildlife populations and/or habitat, historic and cultural values and vegetative, scientific or paleontological importance.

Once river sections were determined to be eligible, they were pre-classified as wild, scenic or recreational.

Wild rivers (or segments) were considered “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.”

Scenic rivers (or segments) were “free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”

Recreational sections were considered “readily accessible by road or railroad, which may have some development along their shoreline and that may have undergone some impoundments or diversion in the past.”

Among the GMUG recommendations, Oh-Be-Joyful Creek and tributaries were classified as recreational or wild. West Elk Creek and West Soap Creek were classified as wild. Copper Creek was classified as recreational and its tributaries were classified as wild.

The Eligibility process is a required component of the USFS’s current Forest Plan revision process. Each national forest and grassland operates under management as identified in a Forest Plan. The USFS initiated plan revision in the early 2000s, and conducted an eligibility study at that time as well—but due to a period of inaction, the process was not finished and has been re-initiated.

“It’s important to conduct eligibility with plan revision because any eligible segments would then be guided by the forest plan, providing management direction in the form of plan components,” wrote Brittany Duffy, acting forest planner for the GMUG, by e-mail.

The USFS released a draft Wilderness Evaluation Report in August 2018 for the GMUG, describing how more than 40 areas in the Gunnison and Paonia Ranger Districts, among others, were rated for wilderness features. Those areas were chosen from a USFS inventory of lands that meet the criteria of spanning a minimum of 5,000 acres or being 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 NWSRS is part of the Wilderness evaluation process, and includes three steps—each of which includes public engagement opportunities. The Eligibility Report is the first step, classification is the second, and determining suitability is the third. The plan revision determines which areas are considered, and ultimately Congress makes the final designation of segments as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Wilderness designation offers the highest level of public lands protection while still providing for multiple uses such as wildlife habitat, headwaters protection, and recreation.

If a river is determined not suitable, it is no longer eligible for inclusion in the NWSRS. The GMUG initiates a suitability study when strong local interest or support is demonstrated, and congress expresses interest or a proposed project would alter the free-flowing character of a stream or affect the resources that made the stream eligible.

According to High Country Conservation (HCCA) public lands director Matt Reed, the 2012 federal planning rule for revising forest plans, such as the GMUG’s, requires that the Forest Service evaluate existing wilderness areas located in the plan area, and the potential need and opportunity for additional designated areas. “As such, HCCA over the past several years has worked with our members, the public, and other organizations and stakeholders to identify areas on the GMUG that possess wilderness characteristics, and to advocate that they be recommended for and managed as wilderness in the revised forest plan. This wilderness inventory and evaluation component of forest planning is an important part of that process,” he wrote by e-mail.

The HCCA is analyzing the Draft Eligibility Report and expects to submit substantive comments and recommendations. It will also be hosting an open house at the Crested Butte Depot on March 12 to help the public in advocating for river protections.

“In the meantime, HCCA calls on everyone interested in this issue to submit your own comments for river segments on the GMUG that you know about and cherish, including documentation of streams’ water quality, observations and documentation about travel and access management along the segments, unique qualities, existing stream-related protections and designations, photographs, and testimonials,” wrote Reed.

The USFS is hosting webinars to walk through the draft Eligibility Report in coordination with the February 19 report release, and the next one is February 22 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The recording is available on the GMUG website at https://usfs.adobeconnect.com/gmug-500/

Links to the draft Eligibility Report and interactive Storymap are available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/gmug/landmanagement/planning. Questions, comments or concerns, can be directed to gmugforestplan@fs.fed.us and feedback will be most helpful if received by Friday, March 22, according to the USFS.

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