Who's managing the forest?
Local conservationists believe proposed policies will undermine the public process.

Management of the public lands, such as the San Juan National Forest, seen here, may be subject to revised environmental regulations, which the Bush administration says will streamline the federal review process and save tax dollars.
However, local environmentalists say the revised rules are just a way to undermine the public input process. /Photo by Dustin Bradford.

New national environmental policies are beginning to arrive in La Plata County, and local conservationists have deep concerns. Area forest management could get a George W. Bush facelift, and there is fear that the public could be excluded from control of the forested areas surrounding Durango.

Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild, openly criticizes the White House’s new line on the environment. “This is hands-down the most anti-environmental administration I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s not just anti-environment, it’s anti-public.”

The Bush administration has recently tried to tackle a number of environmental regulations that range from clean air to stewardship of the nation’s forests. When Berman says “anti-public,” he’s referring to what he sees as a widespread effort to cut the public out of the management of public lands, and national forests in particular.

“The Bush administration is very clearly chipping away at any environmental regulation that’s in place for the national forest that we all own,” he said.
At face level, several of the proposals are intended to streamline federal review and cut down on wasted tax dollars. However, the streamlining would come at the expense of public scoping. An initiative introduced Dec. 6 would exempt revisions of forest plans from having to go through an intensive environmental impact statement. Forest plans represent the guiding spirit of areas like the San Juan National Forest.

“This is one of the most outrageous efforts to undermine public involvement in public lands,” Berman said.

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, agrees that the streamline is an attempt to cut the public out of the process. “The Bush administration can’t just wave a magic wand and make the public go away,” he said.

Another initiative announced Dec. 16 would capitalize on the recent wildlfire season. Wooded areas deemed hazardous could be “categorically excluded” from environmental review prior to thinning projects. With a proposal to thin the Missionary Ridge burn area next summer, local foresters could seize on the new proposal. Plans are to “salvage” between 12 and 36 million board feet of timber from Missionary Ridge next summer, making it one of the largest timber sales in the state.

“Potentially, they will have the maneuverability to cut out the public if they desire,” said Pearson. However, Pearson noted that the San Juan National Forest has a good history of consensus building and has already begun an environmental impact statement for the project.

Thurman Wilson, assistant manager for the San Juan Public Lands Center, confirmed this. “We’re already working on an EIS for Missionary Ridge and plan on continuing it,” he said.

However, Wilson noted that categorical exclusions could affect future fuels-reduction projects. “There is potential locally for other kinds of fuels-reduction projects,” he said. “We might end up with a more simplified process on those.”

Regarding the streamlining of forest plan revisions, Wilson said there probably would be no short-term effect locally. The San Juan National Forest undertook a revision of its forest plan beginning in 1995. After a several-year-long delay in 1998, work on the plan has recently resumed.

“We’ve already had quite a bit of public involvement with community members throughout the San Juans,” Wilson said. “We’ll certainly still do more.”
Regardless of best intentions, Berman countered, “The proposed regulatory changes are going to make public land much more open to excessive logging. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, these proposals will eliminate any input or even knowledge of proposed actions.”

Some good environmental news may have surfaced on another front. A recent directive for wetlands has emerged and it may have positive impacts. A “no-net-loss” regulation has traditionally guided wetland mitigation, and replacement wetlands have had to be constructed close to disrupted or destroyed wetlands. However, a new mandate to handle wetlands mitigation on a regional basis was handed down last week. The move sparked concerns that wetlands would not be replaced where they should be and that no-net-loss would become a thing of the past.

However, Lesley McWhirter, project manager for the Durango office of the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for regulating wetlands, doesn’t agree. Instead, she said the new mandate will allow the corps to address long-standing, overall impacts.

“I think it’s a mandate to start improving the guidelines,” McWhirter said. “It will get us to start looking at cumulative impacts more effectively.”

And as for concerns that local wetlands will be replaced on the Front Range or elsewhere, McWhirter said that the Corps has been directed to take a watershed-based approach to wetlands and to consider river basins like the Animas, as a whole. Such an approach will allow the Corps to consider not only present impacts but past ones as well.

“By looking at the major drainages, we’ll be really trying to get a handle on what impacts are occurring or have occurred,” she said.

The Forest Service has opened a 90-day comment period on its proposed regulation changes. Comments on the forest plan revisions are due by March 6 and the scoping for categorical exclusions for salvage logging near communities will end March 16.






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