Requests better alignment with local expertise, research
By Katherine Nettles
Gunnison County recently submitted its comments on the U.S. Forest Service Preliminary Draft Plan (Forest Plan) for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG). The plan focuses on the incorporation of local efforts and expertise regarding public lands and endangered species; on the county’s authority to regulate oil and gas development; on travel management; on coordination among federal land management agencies; and on protecting access to public roads.
The Forest Plan revision is part of an overall national USFS effort to revise its land use planning strategy, which was last done in 1983. Out of 3,260 square miles in Gunnison County, almost 2,000 square miles fall under USFS jurisdiction.
“So, we are talking about a Forest Plan… that is going to manage the Gunnison National Forest for, if you do the math, we could be looking at another 40, 50 years,” said deputy county attorney Matthew Hoyt in a meeting with county commissioners on July 23, as the board discussed its feedback for the USFS.
As he reviewed seven total aspects of the draft on which the county had decided to provide input, Hoyt continued, “Our suggestion to you is whatever comments we make we should have it in the lens of what does the national forest look like a half century from now, whether that’s travel management, whether that’s the sage grouse, whether that’s RMBL, whether that’s any other aspect of the forest recreation use, timber harvesting… so the suggestions we make are all taken through that lens, including travel issues.”
The Board of County Commissioners submitted its comments to the USFS on July 29. The first comment asks that the USFS align its Forest Plan with the recommendations from the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI), a local coalition that created a proposal for land management within Gunnison County. The county wants to ensure that any aspects of the Forest Plan that are not consistent with the GPLI proposal be altered to align with it.
Second, the county asks that the Forest Plan more fully account for the needs of the Gunnison sage grouse and consider specific comments from the county’s wildlife expert, James Cochran, regarding the Forest Plan’s handling of the endangered species.
The comments attached to the document specify that the USFS should prioritize cheatgrass treatment across ownership and land management boundaries to protect critical Gunnison sage grouse habitat; that it use sampling protocols consistent with its conservation plan; that it require (not merely suggest) leashes for pets within its habitat; that regulations of fence marking, over-the-snow travel and surface disturbing activities be tightened; and that in the USFS stated “desired conditions” for Gunnison sage grouse habitat, both new and residual vegetative cover be prioritized to address the life-stage needs of the bird.
Third, the county suggests “special treatment” for Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), stating that the Forest Plan’s time frame for establishing RMBL as a research natural area is too long (three years), and that the area should already be considered an established research entity after 91 years of operation as such.
Fourth, the county suggests that the Forest Plan should “explore, consider and address” coal mine methane capture in keeping with air quality provisions of the Forest Plan, as well as considering lease restrictions and recognizing the county’s authority to regulate oil and gas development within its borders.
Fifth, the county suggests that the Forest Plan state an objective to work in coordination with other federal land management agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is also in the process of updating its resource management plans for the area. The county provided protests to the BLM’s final draft plan on July 29 as well and included commentary that the BLM make the same efforts to work with other federal land management agencies.
Sixth, the county suggested that the Forest Plan differentiate between motorized uses, to “account for recent technological innovations that have indisputably changed the face of backcountry vehicle use and impacts,” according to the county’s commentary document. Currently the only two categories identified in the Forest Plan are motorized and non-motorized, and the county suggests that while e-bikes are all considered motorized, certain types of e-bikes are more akin to bicycles. On the other hand, the county suggests that UTVs or side-by-sides are gaining in popularity and that widening of some trails to accommodate them while restricting them on other trails may be of interest.
Last, the county asks that the Forest Pan recognize potentially significant threats to accessing public lands within the GMUG. “And of course, we are educated by some recent issues regarding threats to public roads within the county,” Hoyt said during the July 23 meeting.
Referring to a specific case under current litigation in federal district court, Biro v. Smith et al, in which the county is named as a defendant alongside the USFS, the county describes landowners who “illegally and inappropriately” block or impede access to forest lands and affect such lands and enjoyment.
“While the County will continue to vigorously defend its interests in that litigation, it also encourages the USFS to do so, and, in context of the Forest Plan itself, to spell out in the Forest Plan its express commitment to maintaining appropriate and legal access to public lands,” states the county in its commentary document.
“I really appreciate that the Forest Service has been trying to involve counties and county government. That’s on one side of the scale. The pace at which they are running this plan is pretty aggressive as well,” said county commissioner Jonathan Houck. “So, we have the ability to really give some input and we want to make sure their draft as they are moving forward is pointed in the right direction.”
The comment period for the Forest Service Preliminary Draft Plan has now ended, but the overall plan is still in its early stages and will include other opportunities for public input at later stages and drafts. More information can be found the planning website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/gmug/landmanagement/planning.