Wednesday, October 16, 2019

US Forest Service gives county updates on myriad projects

Keeping the communication flowing

By Mark Reaman

There is a lot happening in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG) and the Gunnison County commissioners received a brief update on several projects from deputy forest supervisor Chad Stewart on Tuesday, June 5.

Topics ranged from the GMUG Forest Plan Revision process to travel management planning on the forests, to Crested Butte Mountain Resort and the Red Lady mine situation. Stewart indicated that county input was very important in determining future direction with any of the issues.

The most discussed topic was probably the current Forest Plan Revision that is being done for the entire GMUG. The planning started in 2017 and a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) with specific guidelines is expected to come out by early 2020. The process is currently in a “public feedback” period and the commissioners indicated they wanted elements of the GPLI (Gunnison Public Lands Initiative) to play a role in the end product.

The GPLI is an ongoing effort that brings together various regional stakeholders to try and figure how best to provide meaningful protections for public lands in the area. It includes ranchers, recreationalists, conservationists and hunters. The GPLI aims to protect key public lands through a variety of designations that include wilderness and “special management areas” known as SMAs. It is hoped that Congress will ultimately adopt the initiative’s proposals. The commissioners are involved in the GPLI process and they advocated to Stewart that the US Forest Service consider key elements and other anticipated comments from the county as part of the Forest Plan Revision. “There are three other such proposals out there and we have to give them all equal weight,” Stewart said. “If the county selects the GPLI as a preference then it gives it more weight in our view. I am patiently waiting to see what you guys will do with that.”

The county hosted a GPLI open house on Tuesday night at the courthouse in an effort to more thoroughly engage the public and receive more comments on the proposal.

Stewart said the Forest Service didn’t want to rely on chopping up the forest into a lot of different SMAs but after going up to Gothic and seeing the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in action, he realized how that fit into such a category and how SMAs could be effectively utilized.

Stewart recognized that one key to focus on in the Gunnison National Forest is the recreation spectrum. “That actually would help set up the forest travel plan in the future,” he said. “Wilderness is another big one for the county and that is where the counties in the GMUG have various opinions so there will be a wilderness discussion. There are very different opinions across the board. It is a big landscape.”

Stewart said the timeline for the Forest Plan Revision is pretty much on track. Public feedback is currently being taken and he expects a solidified draft plan to be announced in 2020.

“Having public input as the plan is evolving makes for a better plan in the end,” noted Gunnison county commissioner John Messner. “But there will still be grenades. The different forests within the district have different priorities.”

“We have the full spectrum, for sure,” agreed Stewart. “There will always be grenades but I don’t want a bomb at the end to derail it, so public input is very important.”

Travel management, the ski area, the mine

Commissioner Jonathan Houck reminded the FS of their commitment to updating the winter travel management plan for areas without those guidelines, and to re-visit  the upper valley plan. Stewart said travel management was not a priority at the forest right now but understanding the importance of the issue in Gunnison County, it would likely be discussed soon after the forest plan revision was completed.

“There is no incentive for the forest to this given the amount of grief it produces,” he admitted. “We aren’t being directed to do it so it will be hard for me to direct employees to focus on that when we have other priorities like oil and gas leasing.

“But [Gunnison Forest ranger Matt] McCombs has made it clear it is a priority for his office,” Stewart continued. “So I think we will take it on at some level on the heels of the Forest Plan Revision. He feels a sense of urgency to do something about it. My crystal ball says the Gunnison Forest may prioritize travel management planning and the other forests may focus on oil and gas.”

Stewart said the Crested Butte Mountain Resort expansion plan has been signed, sealed and delivered. “The relationship with Vail is good and Matt has worked with them before. All is going well and I see no red flags on the horizon with that one,” Stewart said.

As for Mt. Emmons and the molybdenum mine now controlled by global mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, Stewart said he has seen the beginnings of a plan on how to move forward. “That is a huge step and it is being reviewed. Getting a plan is huge for liability concerns,” he said. “Understanding the risk is the first step and from the Forest Service perspective that is where we are. We are heading down a path to fix this in perpetuity and that could involve a land exchange. That in itself is probably a three-year process and we are in the first step of that process. We should know more soon after the review. We’re working on the issue with Mt. Emmons and that is great.”

Stewart said the West Elk coal mine lease modification seems to be moving ahead in a similar fashion of reasonable compromise. “It seems to be heading on a track where the issues are being worked out and there is cooperation on all sides. It is showing signs of real cooperation,” he said

Logging is growing in the Gunnison National Forest and Stewart said he is coordinating with the log mill in Montrose to take out the desired number of trees throughout the area, including the Taylor Park area. “I’m a forester and so to manage the forest it is important to treat both the live and the dead vegetation,” he explained. He did say the timber trucks would have to coordinate with the road closures on Highway 50 when the Little Blue Canyon work is being done starting next year. But he said the timing is being coordinated so the logging trucks can hit the road openings and get to Montrose without having to wait for hours. “It seems like it will work,” he said.

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