GMUG final draft of Forest Plan generates local concerns

Objections likely from Gunnison County, HCCA and Town of Crested Butte

By Katherine Nettles

The 60-day objection period for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest draft record of decision for its revised forest plan and environmental impact statement (EIS) is underway, having started when the GMUG released the final draft documents on August 30. Interested parties have a 60-day period to submit objections, and at least a few local governmental and nongovernmental agencies who were cooperating agencies are digging into the various documents, totaling more than 2,000 pages, with plans to potentially file objections to the final draft. 

The GMUG is the largest national forest in the Rocky Mountain Region, covering 3.2 million acres within 11 counties in southwestern Colorado: Delta, Garfield, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Mineral, Montrose, Ouray, Saguache, San Juan and San Miguel. The GMUG began the forest plan revision process in 2018, to replace its existing plan that is now four decades old and to guide future on-the-ground decisions about its public lands. Major concerns voiced about the final plan include increased allowances for suitable timber, motorized use, reduced wilderness expansion and inadequate attention to local efforts such as the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) and Gunnison Outdoor Resources Protection (GORP) Act. Both GPLI and GORP have resulted from a coalition of diverse stakeholders with various perspectives on the 2.5 million acres of public lands, mostly national forest, within Gunnison County alone.  

Gunnison County commissioner chair Jonathan Houck spoke with the Crested Butte News this week about the county’s dissatisfaction with some aspects of the GMUG’s revised land management plan and final EIS. After an executive session last week, the board of county commissioners appointed Houck and county attorney Matthew Hoyt to work together in reading through and assessing the extensive files and documents from the GMUG associated with the final forest plan decision. The plan is for Houck and Hoyt to develop the response from the county during the 60-day protest period.

“For the protest period, we’re going to raise some significant issues,” said Houck. He said the main concern is that GPLI and GORP were misrepresented and at times dismissed.

“The GPLI process informed us on the community’s desires related to this plan and was dismissed, possibly from a lack of them understanding it, and in some cases it was misrepresented,” he said. Examples include GPLI’s overall forest health, vegetation management and wildfire management recommendations, which the GMUG planners said was too restrictive. “We built GPLI and GORP to be prepared for those considerations, and it is disappointing that they did not seem to make the effort to understand it more thoroughly,” said Houck.

Other issues were related to timber sales, motorized use and addressing climate change. “We’re concerned about the massive amount of increase in suitable base for timber. We’re not opposed to timber sales and forestry projects at all,” said Houck. “But we need a nexus to stewardship principles, whether ecological, protecting wildlife habitat, biodiversity, soils, water resources or any number of other aspects.”

Houck said he finds the same issue with the final plan allowing for increased motorized use in the national forest.

“It doesn’t show how these relate to the GMUG’s requirement to address climate change adaptation and mitigation,” he said.  “We are looking for more data and science to substantiate what they have in their recreation management prescriptions.”

He said he has spoken to San Miguel and Ouray county representatives and “they have indicated their concerns are similar to where we are.” He said Gunnison County plans to coordinate with the myriad other agencies related to and affected by this plan as well. “I want to see the organizations that have been invited to be a part of this process continue to be engaged. I want to be a resource to them but also encourage them to be involved.”

Houck noted the short period of time the GMUG has given for interested parties to read through extensive material and mount any objections. He said while he and Hoyt are working vigorously through each section of the plan and EIS, there is a lot to unpack. “We’re still combing through.” 

The town of Crested Butte, like Gunnison County, was a cooperating agency to the GMUG for the forest plan revision process. The town has assigned its recreation, open space and trails supervisor Joey Carpenter to the task of doing a deep dive assessment on the final GMUG plan. Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick summarized that “This is an objection period so unlike previous rounds they are not really soliciting feedback as much as giving everybody a chance to find mistakes and/or object.”

“Town expressed in extensive comments the community desire to align the revised forest plan with or near the collaborative efforts spelled out in GPLI, which was most closely associated with alternative D in the draft plan. We feel members of the community are likely to be most concerned with the limited wilderness addition recommendations and suitable timber harvest acreage since the Agency continued with a revised preferred ‘alternative B’ in the Draft Record of Decision. However, we have not received much direct feedback from community members to this point,” wrote Carpenter in a statement.

“Town has not made a formal decision on if we will file any objections. However, we have the opportunity to sign on as an objector with local partners, submit our own, or act as an ‘interested person’ to participate in objection proceedings should we desire. Our opportunities to participate in the process come both from acting as a cooperating agency and submitting extensive comments throughout the NEPA process which began in 2017.”

High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) executive director Chad Reich echoed some of the county’s issues with the plan, and said HCCA finds the final plan lacking in several ways.

“We are disappointed that the final GMUG Forest Plan does not reflect GPLI, a proposal submitted on behalf of numerous stakeholder groups in the Gunnison Valley—and supported by Senator Michael Bennet. Our primary concerns are that significantly much less wilderness is included along with a near-doubling of the current acreage that is deemed suitable for timber harvest,” Reich wrote in an email to the News. 

“We will continue our evaluation and submit our objections by the October 30 deadline. Our hope is the Forest Service includes more of the community’s wishes and concerns in the final plan,” concluded Reich.

A quick guide to a long set of documents

The GMUG hosted two virtual information sessions to go through the final plan and EIS website and general outline on September 5, followed by an in-person meeting in Montrose on September 6. During the first virtual presentation, GMUG land management planner Samantha Staley presented an overview of the forest plan and feedback and plan alternatives. 

The draft record of decision is 80 pages long, and explains in each case what decision is being made and why. There are also shorter, 40-page documents to explain comparisons and changes from previous drafts. Staley advised readers to focus in particular on Chapters 2 and 3 of the forest plan direction document, which add up to about 130 pages.  

The final plan documents include the final revised forest plan, EIS and draft record of decision, maps and GIS files.

Under Biological Assessment and other supplemental material, there are two documents to look for about the species of conservation concern process, and an enclosure and “process rationale.” 

Jonathan Tucker, assistant GMUG land management planner, described the finer points of the 60-day objection period that began on August 30 and ends on October 30. He emphasized that only those who have been part of the process previously can be part of this final objection process. Those who previously submitted comments may be eligible to be considered an “interested person,” and invited to have a more involved part in the objection review process. 

Eligible objections will be posted online to the GMUG forest plan website, and objection reviewing officers have 90 days to review them after the submittal period closes. The response timeline may be extended, depending on objection volume and as the holiday season approaches. Tucker said the GMUG may issue a written response, which is the final decision, and then GMUG forest supervisor Chad Stewart will make a final record of the decision, expected in the spring of 2024. 

The GMUG forest plan, EIS and all related documents can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/gmug/?project=51806.

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