Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Watchdogs

Beneath the patina of this paradise we live in, there are a number of skeptics—watchdogs, if you will. They raise their eyebrows and keep an eye out to make sure this place remains as close to paradise as we can. That is one of the many blessings of this place.

A few of many examples:

Perhaps the most recent success story in that watchdog realm are the efforts by a group of concerned citizens looking to protect the great blue heron rookery on the upper Slate River. Dramatically increased river use through standup paddleboards (SUPs) and tubing had more and more people floating the upper Slate earlier and earlier in the summer season. The conflict came when the sometimes-loud floaters would cause the nesting herons tending to their fledgling chicks to fly off. There was concern that the stress of the human-bird interaction would negatively impact the chicks and ultimately lead to the desecration of the great natural amenity of a unique high-altitude heron rookery.

It began with people living near the rookery and ultimately stakeholders including the neighbors, conservationists, boaters, outfitters, researchers and ranchers, all coming together to see if a compromise could be achieved to limit floating in deference to baby birds—and one was. A voluntary “no-float” period was implemented that relied on heavy education and public awareness. It seemed to work and the high water this year probably assisted in keeping people away from the rookery during a critical time. A few people floated immediately after the deadline despite requests to wait another week, but overall, the people respected the ban that came about thanks to a group of residents acting as watchdogs. The idea of a community choosing to compromise and limit its actions to help protect a feathery neighbor is, frankly, pretty inspiring.

In that same vein, I was sent a link to an article this week citing a study of elk herds near Vail. The basic premise is that as recreation grows, there is a potentially devastating impact on the elk. With new technology making recreation easier, some of the trails near Vail are now hosting hundreds of thousands of people in a year and the elk herd numbers have been dropping “precipitously.” According to the article in The Guardian, a now-retired wildlife professor measured impacts of recreation, particularly hikers, on elk calves. His study showed that “about 30 percent of the calving elk died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving. Models showed that if each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die. When disturbances stopped, the number of calves bounced back.”

That is startling. And certainly something for us all to think about as we allow more expansion of chairlifts and trails throughout the various drainages in the region. This is where I give credit to not just the person who sent me the link, but more specifically to Teddy and Sam Evans, who have been acting as the watchdog for the herd of elk that resides much of the year behind Crested Butte Mountain. They’ve pointed out the negative impacts of more human interaction on the herd for years and I appreciate their efforts and observations.

The High Country Conservation Advocates is probably the definition of local watchdog. There have been times in the past when they came across as more junkyard guard dog than high-minded watchdog and went over the community boundary in my opinion, but that comes with the territory and I am glad they are around. Right now they are watching the Forest Service and local logging proposals. HCCA is skeptical of the need to allow a pretty major logging operation up Ohio Pass near Splain’s Gulch. HCCA’s public lands director outlined concerns in last week’s Crested Butte News. Matt Reed writes, “We are being asked to acquiesce to a commercial timber sale to feed an out of county mill at the expense of public safety and known environmental impacts…” He spends time factually documenting his points and not just making emotional arguments. It is good, valuable stuff.

Speaking of good, valuable stuff—Gunnison County has officially submitted its 161-page comment letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture expressing great concern about the Forest Service proposal to revise the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) procedures and regulations. The bottom line is that the feds want to streamline the review process to make quicker decisions impacting vast tracts of land without allowing for significant public comment or scientific environmental assessments. What could go wrong there? Well, thank goodness David Baumgarten and the Gunnison County attorney’s office are aware and acting like a watchdog because given the amount of public land surrounding us all—almost 80 percent of land in Gunnison County is federal land—this is important stuff.

Basically, the proposed revisions would undercut current regulations for public disclosure and accountability and contain loopholes allowing the government to find workarounds instead of having to deal with the pesky public. I hate that attitude and that’s why great appreciation goes to the county staff and commissioners for stepping up and alerting other small governments about this horrible idea.

Of course the Forest Service maintains the change would not lead to “any significant harm.” They’d do what’s best. Just trust them. The county’s response to that claim is, “This is an astonishing premise, and it does not withstand even casual scrutiny; and it is dramatically inconsistent with the ‘twin aims’ of NEPA.” Hear, hear.

Look, I’m sorry the Forest Service personnel’s job is made harder when the public throws sand in the gears of a decision making process. But that’s the deal. The U.S. Forest Service is us—and those of us like you and me who live right next to forests are fortunate we have watchdogs keeping an eye on them for “us.”

Watchdogs are important in our society. It takes a lot of time, effort and intelligence. Thank goodness we have a good number of people around here with the smarts and desire to keep after it. They help keep this place paradise. Thank you.

—Mark Reaman

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