|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
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,
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
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
“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,”
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
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.