Final land management forest plan for GMUG released

Stakeholders still analyzing the final plan

By Mark Reaman

Initial reactions over the new long-term Forest Plan that will govern millions of acres of federal land in the area around Crested Butte and Gunnison have been relatively positive.  

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released the final revised land management plan and final Record of Decision (ROD) last week for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) forest plan. That plan, many years in the making, will guide the long-term management of the GMUG national forests in western Colorado. While a long and complex document, the plan allocates more than one-quarter of the GMUG—823,000 acres—as Wildlife Management Areas and adds other notable allocations, such as 68,000 acres of recommended wilderness, an increase in the area suitable for timber production to 771,000 acres, and the establishment of an 8,000-acre Gunnison Research Special Interest Area to acknowledge the significant research conducted by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL).

According to the USFS, “informed by this public engagement and best available science, the revised plan provides a durable management framework for the enormous diversity of ecosystems, public interests and uses such as recreation, grazing and timber on the GMUG. The revised plan addresses ecosystem resilience, habitat connectivity and migration corridors, climate change adaptation, wildfire mitigation, sustainable recreation, socioeconomic sustainability, partnerships and shared stewardship opportunities, and cultural and historic resources, among many others.” 

Gunnison County contains a lot of Forest Service land within its boundaries and county commissioner Jonathan Houck said on first reading, there was some good and some not so good in the plan. “On behalf of Gunnison County, I have been deeply involved as a cooperating agency representative through the years-long forest planning process. We advocated for full inclusion of the GPLI (Gunnison Public Lands Initiative) because it represents the values and desires of folks from Gunnison County who helped shape and refine that proposal,” he said. “We are happy to see that about 40% of the GPLI recommendations were adopted in the plan and an additional 20,000 plus acres of wilderness were included in response to objections we presented during that part of the process. As for the remaining 60% of the GPLI recommendations we still have the possibility of achieving those outcomes with the GORP Act. Since the plan was just signed last week, I am still poring through the document and will then begin to develop next step strategies.”  

RMBL was very pleased with the plan’s acknowledgment of its contributions to science that impacts the country, and future protections for the research areas in the valley. “RMBL is very excited about the establishment of the Research Special Management Area around Gothic,” said RMBL executive director Ian Billick. “One of the largest investments the United States has made in environmental research, which is well above $100+ million in spending over the decades, targeting subjects touching on biodiversity, food security, water, and climate, has been made in the valleys surrounding Gothic and Crested Butte. This plan strikes a strong balance with ranching and recreation, while acknowledging the importance of generating the science needed to manage critical environmental resources. We look forward to being a strong partner to the USFS, linking the science to their decision-making and management.”

The High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) always has its eye on public lands decisions and this case is no different. “High Country Conservation Advocates is analyzing the final components of the Revised GMUG National Forest Plan as decided by the forest supervisor last week,” said HCCA advocacy director Jon Hare. “We anticipate some parts of the final plan will further emphasize the conservation of public lands, but we also know that the process has not included several protections that were backed by stakeholders across Gunnison County. HCCA will continue to coordinate with partners and determine next steps forward with the plan as it has been decided.”

In a press release announcing the plan, the USFS said that “throughout the GMUG planning process, we have worked with the public and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to re-imagine how future recreation opportunities will be balanced with maintaining wildlife habitat connectivity. With more than 3,000 miles of existing trails, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests are among the most visited forests in the Rocky Mountain region and visitation is increasing every year. Ensuring a quality recreation experience and equitable access to the outdoors is important to local economies, tourism, and community well-being in western Colorado,” the release stated. “Simultaneously, the GMUG provides critical wildlife habitat for federally listed and other at-risk species and is well-known for iconic big game species. The revised plan balances the increasing demand for new and improved trails while serving as a model for maintaining wildlife habitat connectivity in key landscapes. The revised plan allocates more than one-quarter of the GMUG —823,000 acres – as Wildlife Management Areas, where trail expansion will be capped, while providing ample opportunities to improve existing trails and expand where appropriate.”

 Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association executive director Dave Ochs said the final plan was generally positive. “While we were hoping for more of the GPLI initiative to be endorsed in whole, we are grateful for the preservation of existing uses, appreciate the progressive wildlife protections, but we are specifically excited about the recreation management areas,” he said. “We believe there is some quality opportunity there for ‘stacked’ trails, close to our homes and user access areas.

“We understand the overarching and vast areas the GMUG encompasses, we understand the many uses and demands upon the land,” Ochs continued. “The opportunity to create better recreation experiences and improvements exist in the final ROD (Record of Decision), and we are excited to work alongside our federal partners to make them happen. This has taken a good amount of time, COVID did not help. We believe the GMUG did extensive work to get here, and although we may not agree with all of it, we applaud them in their efforts. We know a ‘shared stewardship’ collaboration is the future for the GMUG/Gunnison National Forest, and we aim to be a part of it.”

The town of Crested Butte was not yet ready to comment on the plan.

The revised plan for the 3.2 million-acre GMUG National Forests was developed to comply with the 2012 Planning Rule. It represents more than six years of extensive participation from local, county, state and federal government cooperating agencies, tribes and communities on Colorado’s western slope and beyond.

The revised plan, environmental impact statement, and record of decision are available at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/gmug/landmanagement/planning.

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