Colorado hasn't been this contentious about its forests since 1907, when Gifford Pinchot himself had to stare down insurgents assembled in Denver.
It's a different
cast of characters now: Here on Colorado's White River National
Forest, it's not cattlemen, lumbermen and miners who are
bellyaching - it's recreationists.
On a forest
that stretches from the Continental Divide, just an hour's drive
westward from Denver's expanding suburbs, into the heart of western
Colorado, the Recreating West has rushed in hard on the heels of
the Extractive West.
Sightseers and mountain
bikers have shooed off the lumbermen and appropriated old logging
roads. And every hunting season, all-terrain vehicle drivers blaze
new trails onto the land. Hikers, cross-country skiers and
snowmobilers every year make it more of a year-round playground,
while downhill skiers account for 7.5 million visits a
All this recreation is beating up the White
River, which covers almost 4 percent of
Now, instead of accommodating every
request that walks in the door, the Forest Service's Proposed
Revised Land and Resource Management Plan seeks to reassert loyalty
to the land itself.
But with many users, the
agency's preferred alternative is not going down
In Edwards, Colo., 115 miles from Denver,
at a meeting of some 30 builders last month, talk swirled nervously
around the White River National Forest and its draft plan. Eagle
County Commissioner Tom Stone pointed to a map that identified in
red every road the plan would close.
across the 3,700 square miles of national forest, the red lines
looked like a cardiovascular diagram in Gray's
Backcountry skiers, the bulk of the
state's ski areas, dirt bikers - all face restrictions, he said.
Why? "Politics," explained the county commissioner. "The decisions
are being made back in Washington," Stone insisted, and "they don't
care because there's just eight electoral votes from Colorado."
A real estate salesman told the builders that if
the White River plan is adopted, it will make "remodeling
contractors' out of them. Another real estate agent muttered that
the plan will turn the forest into a drive-by forest - -a tree
museum." A builder warned, "Did you know that the road to
Thomasville will be closed?"
The Thomasville road won't be closed.
But the rumors have taken on a life of their
No main roads will be closed; side roads
will. The forest plan envisions decommissioning 22 miles of roads
each year, but 1,500 miles of roads currently open to drivers of
full-sized vehicles, such as Jeep Cherokees, will remain so. In
addition, nearly 1,700 miles of trails will remain open to dirt
bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
plan is anything but radical. In closing roads, the Forest Service
shows only slightly more ambition than it did in 1985, when the
agency disgorged its last zoning document.
people reacted then; this time there's a loud outcry. In the 18
newspapers published in Vail, Aspen and other towns along the edges
of the White River National Forest, almost daily stories raise new
concerns; forest officials expect as many as 5,000 signed comments
about the plan. Not just a Colorado issue, the 15-year plan
emerging here is a national issue.
has gotten into the act. After the Forest Service voluntarily added
90 days to the public comment period, Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Campbell attached a rider to an appropriations bill, extending the
comment period a full nine months, to May 9,
To Ski Magazine, the
plan is a cause for national concern: "This document represents
something of a surrender by the Forest Service to the vocal
minority of environmental groups who simply want our sport to go
away," wrote editor Andy Bigford in the November
"If this proposal becomes national policy,
we may end up forfeiting all kinds of recreational opportunities
from coast to coast."
Sounding even more
outraged are snowmobilers, who would find their access to winter
trails reduced by 56 percent. The plan's preferred alternative
still allows them some 500,000 acres to roam, and much of the
territory they're losing lies in areas where few sane snowmobilers
But reduced turf is still the
point, insists Randy Parsons, president of the pro-motor user
group, White River Forest Alliance. He says, "We must take
immediate and drastic action to preserve our right to use public
Almost everyone who reads it offers some
caveats to the White River's plan.
an activist with Colorado Wild, is one of the few who have few
complaints. He began reading forest plans back in the 1980s, and he
calls this one "courageous and revolutionary." It "closes and
obliterates a lot of roads," he says. "They also specify where
snowmobilers can't go. What an outrageous
With its preferred alternative, the Forest
Service has taken a stand: As big as the White River National
Forest is - and it is the 11th largest of the nation's 154 national
forests - it is still too small to be everybody's personal
One hundred years ago, Pinchot - the
father of the Forest Service - asserted that the federal government
had the right to manage its timber reserve tracts; now, the Forest
Service is reasserting its right to manage what has become in part
a giant outdoor gymnasium.
"They've been sleepy
in the recreational world," says Vera Smith, public-land policy
director for the Colorado Mountain Club. "They're playing catch-up.
They're not doing anything radical. They're doing what they should
have been doing all along."
While the forest
plan merely trims and restricts some uses, leaving most more or
less intact, its language is gruff.
summary of its preferred alternative D bluntly warns: "Little or no
off-road motorized or mechanized travel is allowed. Summer
motorized travel is reduced and concentrated, and there are fewer
open roads. There are fewer total road miles."
It's a new forest
A pugnacious approach is far from the
friendly, accommodating, but firm style of the White River's
Supervisor, Martha Ketelle. After a career with the Tennessee
Valley Authority, she joined the Forest Service in 1992, the same
year the agency's ecosystem approach was adopted. She assumed head
duties on the White River two years ago, after the plan revision
was already under way.
Representative of the new
breed of forest supervisor, she has three master's degrees, none of
them in forestry. Her relative newness to the agency has created a
few problems, say colleagues, though they also credit her with
One thing she's learned is that
the mood of Colorado's Western Slope has shifted, as doubts have
grown about the ability of the forest to absorb recreational use -
doubled since the mid-1980s.
In response to one
survey question, for instance, 83 percent agreed that "more
importance should be placed on keeping forests healthy than on
helping people use them in ways they want."
coincides with a shift in the philosophical mooring of the Forest
Service. The White River plan was prepared largely under the aegis
of the Natural Resource Agenda issued by Forest Chief Michael
Dombeck two years ago, and its preferred alternative embraces the
Dombeck principle that higher priority be given to physical and
biological resources than to human uses of the
These are fighting words for those who
believe that recreation is next to godliness on the public's
But environmental groups such as The
Wilderness Society and the Boulder, Colo.-based Biodiversity Legal
Foundation see the Forest Service finally turning in the right
direction with this plan.
One example: Although
Alternative D calls for adding only 47,200 more acres of wilderness
out of a possible 298,000, wilderness supporters say that's far
more than other forests in Colorado have proposed. Altogether, four
other revised plans recommended only 8,000 acres for wilderness
With 80 percent of wilderness in
Colorado mostly "rock and ice," what's needed, say wilderness
activists, are roadless lands below 10,000 feet, where biodiversity
expands. The White River plan recommends wilderness additions in
just those areas around the Flat Tops.
giant step forward," says Jasper Carlton, executive director of the
Biodiversity Legal Foundation. "You've got to compliment the Forest
Service. I didn't think they had it in them."
The plan also draws praise from loggers. Because
fire was suppressed for most of the last century, spruce, fir and
lodgepole pine forests have become even-aged and dense; to promote
diversity, the agency sees stepped-up logging as a crucial tool.
That forestry precept is found in all but one of the alternatives
The exception is Alternative I,
which was assembled by the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, a coalition
of environmentally concerned groups and individuals. The
alternative's approach embraces the principles of conservation
biology, leaving large core areas to nature, and linking those
areas with roadless, undeveloped corridors for wildlife migration.
Only on the forest periphery does Alternative I envision intensive
"To think we can exclude fire is
delusional," says the workshop's Sloan Shoemaker. And fire, he
insists, is not the same as logging, since cutting removes biomass
and fire recycles it.
Loggers aren't entirely
comfortable with the agency's view of cutting trees as a means
instead of an end, yet Gary Jones of the Colorado Timber Industry
Association says he's happy with the agency's preferred Alternative
"You can't do it with fire," he says of forest
management. "And you can't do nothing; that would be disaster down
"It's an unusual partnership," he adds,
"and it hasn't been completely worked out yet."
Loggers and many environmentalists are finding
common ground; can bedfellows get much
Yes. An example was a pro-motorized-use
group defending hikers:
The forest plan's
proposal to obliterate two well-used trails in the Maroon
Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area didn't evoke much hiker response;
but the White River Forest Alliance, with a $75,000 budget
augmented by state and national motor groups, carried on an
extensive radio advertising campaign in which they warned that the
plan would kick even hikers off the
In 1984, fat-tire mountain bicycles were so
few the forest plan made no mention of them. Bicycle use mushroomed
214 percent during the subsequent dozen
Now, mountain bikers can go almost
anywhere outside of wilderness. And they do.
hillsides like that between the Beaver Creek Resort and the
Eagle-Vail subdivision, mountain bikers have pioneered trails with
names like Polly's Plunge and Oso, the latter so-named because a) a
bear (oso in Spanish) was seen nearby, or b) because of what
somebody might say (-Oh S--- Oh'), as they look down their
handlebars at the steep plunge below, where the earth has been
scraped clean of vegetation.
Such "pirate" trails
braid the White River National Forest, particularly near the more
heavily populated ski areas.
growth, the White River's plan proposes to confine mountain biking,
as well as skateboards and in-line skates designed for dirt, to
specific trails, and to close access to all other trails. Many
mountain bikers say the agency doesn't know what it's
"Everybody's gut feeling is that trail
users impact wildlife," says Martha Rozowski, executive director of
Bicycle Colorado. "What we don't know is how much of an impact."
Gary Sprung, communications director for the
International Mountain Bike Association, which represents 15,000
dues-paying members, says that while land managers can't always
wait for the science, "you also don't act arbitrarily and
However, Charlie Tarvar, owner of
Hub of Aspen and founder of two bicycling clubs, says the preferred
forest plan "is a wonderful compromise." He estimates he spent 100
hours working with the agency on the plan.
Vail, well-known mountain biker Dawes Wilson has been courted by
both environmentalists and motorcycle riders. He says he feels no
affinity with motorized users but warns against giving hikers and
horseback riders preferred status in the
"I think it will push bicycle riders
more toward motorized organizations," he says. "I think that would
"If wildlife is the big concern,
which it seems to be, then it seems wrong to leave no restrictions
on pedestrian travel," he says. "It seems to me that the user group
that most affects wildlife is a pedestrian with a dog." He says
non-motorized users should be treated the same or the Forest
Service should "come up with some hard evidence to make us feel
Wilson also hints at civil
disobedience if bicycle trails are closed: "I don't think it's
going to work, I don't think it can be enforced."
The "where's the science?" argument is
also voiced by some backcountry skiers.
numbers have grown 16 percent since the last forest plan was
adopted, and backcountry ski huts - including the nationally known
10th Mountain Division huts - have more than quadrupled. At the
same time, forest carnivores have been pushed to the brink of
extinction - or perhaps over the edge.
Service's response is a new "primary zoning" to protect animals
such as wolverines and Canada lynx.
zoning of 116,000 acres would reduce snowmobile terrain and might
also quash more backcountry ski huts.
At the very
least, any new trails would have to be balanced by the abandonment
of existing trails.
The theory is that lynx do
well in powder snow because of their enormous paws, which are as as
big as a mountain lion's. But coyotes and other predators can
attack lynx during the make-or-break time of midwinter by traveling
on skier or snowmobile trails.
The theory is not
"The burden should be on
them to prove that our presence has a detrimental impact upon
lynx," says Tim Casey of Breckenridge. "I don't think they can
prove it." Casey is a founder of the Summit Huts Association, a
group which has several more huts
Backcountry ski huts are relatively new.
Downhill skiing was the 800-pound gorilla on the
White River before, and downhill skier numbers have grown more than
24 percent since 1986.
The new plan would largely
limit, but not eliminate, ski area expansion. That includes Summit
County's four ski areas, which together mass more skier days than
all of Utah; as well as Vail and its sibling, Beaver Creek, and, to
the west, Aspen's four ski areas.
ski areas chip in $7 million a year to the U.S. Treasury, while
costing the Forest Service only $350,000 in administrative
The Forest Service predicts the ski areas
will be able to accommodate only 1 percent growth in business, as
opposed to to a projected growth of 2.6 percent, for the next
several years. The result would be crowding, and also a decrease in
quality skiing, since powder snow is a casualty when the slopes are
groomed to accommodate the greatest numbers of
Aspen Skiing Company has endorsed the
Forest Service plan, while asking for more wilderness and other
modifications. Vail Resorts says it is "baffled" and has
"condemned" the plan. However, it already has the continent's
largest ski area, and it just got larger, thanks to a controversial
expansion into a roadless area known as Category III (HCN,
The loudest howls have come from
resorts in Summit County, 90 minutes from the Denver-Boulder
metropolitan area's exploding 2.5 million population, which is
expected to add another 1 million more people by
Having survived and thrived even as aging
baby boomers slowly retreat from physical activity, these ski areas
have begun to see the arrival of the "echo generation." Vigorous
and affluent, the new generation has numbers (72 million in the
United States) that approach those of their parents (78
"The plan doesn't give us the
flexibility it should," says Breckenridge chief operating officer
"Keep in mind, it's not permission,"
pleads Arapahoe Basin's Jim Gentling. "We're just asking for the
In the past, the agency has usually
given the zoning, and then the permission. Now, for almost the
first time in 40 years, the Forest Service's response to ski-area
assumptions about entitled growth is a polite: "How come?"
Environmentalists have long criticized the
Forest Service for being too permissive. Ski-resort expansions are
market-driven - an "arms race," Colorado Wild's Jeff Berman
That arms race is not primarily about
sliding downhill, says another critic. "It's the real estate market
for second homes that is really driving the ski industry, not
developing skiing for skiing sake," Kevin Knapmiller says. Why
should the Forest Service be a partner in jacking up the price of
adjacent private land? asks Knapmiller, president of the Blue River
chapter of the Sierra Club.
preferred alternative could dramatically change the business of
skiing. Although there have been plateaus and even declines, the
ski industry has always been based on growth - more lifts, more
skiable terrain, more houses. Now, at the geographic heart of the
industry, the Forest Service is flashing the "go slow" sign, and
hinting that a full stop signal may be
Nowhere in the Forest Service's
documentation of its preferred alternative is its essential
philosophy better explained than in a memorandum submitted by the
Colorado Division of Wildlife during the planning
"We believe the people have the right to
recreate on their national forests," staffers said, "but not
necessarily at all times and with any travel method that they
"We also believe that the Forest Service
should not necessarily accommodate every new recreational pursuit
that comes along, particularly mechanical and motorized forms of
recreation. In our view, foot and horse travel should be viewed as
the only methods of travel that have an unquestioned "right" to use
any part of the forest; even then, there are times and places where
total area closures are necessary to protect wildlife values."
For their frankness, staffers at the state
agency were forbidden last fall to talk to anyone about the forest
plan. Greg Walcher, the governor-appointed head of the Department
of Natural Resources, issued the gag order, though an agency
spokesman insists that the term is inaccurate. The restraint is a
procedural issue, says Todd Malmsbury, public information
In early January, thanks to a Freedom of
Information Act request filed by reporter Heather McGregor,
Walcher's position became public: The state wildlife agency backed
away from taking any position, and statements from Division of
Wildlife Director John Mumma and others warmly endorsing
Alternative D are now deleted.
So far, Forest
Supervisor Martha Ketelle, has stood her ground. She also pointedly
defends the congressionally mandated process, if not its
conclusions. And she said at a forum months ago: "The plan can be
"She's honest, up front and doesn't
talk the circular talk so many federal employees do," says Beverly
Compton, of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.
believe it's Martha's personality that has made it possible for
them to come as far as they have. She's fighting against strong
opposition that is well-funded and that wants the status quo,
adults who don't want to be responsible for their actions and
impacts, and are mad that we do not want to deal with their
Richard "Woody" Woodrow was the
forest supervisor and architect of the plan that was issued in
1985. He was trained in forestry and began his career in Eagle, in
the heart of the White River National Forest, helping build the big
roads for timber sales.
Now retired and still
living in Glenwood Springs, Woodrow seems stung by the proposed
changes to what he calls "my" plan. These days he's working for
Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis to possibly create a new
Ketelle says that's fine as long as
McInnis's forest alternative is inclusive and respectful of
different points of view, just as she must
That's a clear jab at McInnis's narrow list
of invitees at two early meetings.
message has been consistent: Compromise will be necessary, but so
will change. The current plan, she says, never recognized that the
forest's capacity could be exceeded; the plan that will be adopted
in the year 2000 must recognize that.
mutterings and even hotheaded accusations may have flown in this
White River debate, but absent has been the vitriol evident in
Nevada's sagebrush skirmishing, where forest supervisor Gloria
Flora felt driven to resign from her post on the Humboldt-Toiyabe
National Forest (HCN, 11/22/99).
rangers dispute the allegation that the plan was dictated from
Washington, D.C., a charge that could hurt Ketelle, since she is
new to both the Forest Service and the White River. They say broad
consensus existed within the agency about the need to rein in
recreation, and Ketelle merely coalesced that
Furthermore, Ketelle's predecessor, Sonny
LaSalle, remembered as a friend of the ski industry, says from
retirement in Montana that he would have been just as determined
about curbing off-road motorized use.
a significantly greater impact to wildlife, as well as to water and
soil resources, than do snowmobiles," LaSalle
But some observers wonder if the
congressional meddling won't get the White River decision watered
down. Opponents, particularly the ski industry, have frequently
complained directly to Forest Service Chief Dombeck and Regional
Forester Lyle Laverty. Days after the plan was released, some
Forest Service critics speculated that the agency had thrown out
restrictive measures only to expect to retreat to a plan more
acceptable to industrial-level recreation - Alternative C. Some
suspect that the "C" stands for greater compromise with industrial
Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity
Legal Foundation warns against compromising protection for the
Canada lynx, which may one day be listed under the nation's
Endangered Species Act. (On Jan. 8, a decision by federal agencies
was delayed for the second time.) His warning counts: Carlton files
lawsuits the way most people file expense vouchers, and he usually
His not-so-subtle message is that
recreational abatement will be a matter of law, not policy, as long
as the Endangered Species Act is around.
sleeper so far in this forest-planning fight has been enforcement.
The Forest Service admits it can't enforce the road closures it has
now. This is particularly true during hunting season, still the
time of heaviest use even on a New West
"You have to have a pretty unlucky day to
get caught by us," says Bill Johnson, assistant district ranger in
Eagle. Tom Healey, one of just three law enforcement officers on
the forest, admits that you might be more likely to be struck by
The proposed new forest plan assumes a
continued budget of $11 million, despite an estimated $18 million
needed to implement it. Agency employees talk about making up the
shortfall through partnerships with locally based forest-user
groups, education about a land-use ethic and more signs on forest
roads and trails.
But from past experience, signs
can't do it alone. Ask any White River Forest user, and he or she
will tell you that signs reading "closed" often end up smashed on
Allen Best has
been writing about White River National Forest issues since 1985
and recreating on it since 1977. He now splits his time between the
Vail and Denver areas.
* Find the entire Proposed Revised Land
and Resource Management Plan on the Internet:
www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/planning.html. The Forest Service has
some CDs and many forest plan summaries; call 970/945-2521. Full
documents can be found at many locations on Colorado's Front Range:
At university libraries in Fort Collins, Golden, Boulder and
Colorado Springs (CU campus) and the Denver Public Library, as well
as at Forest Service offices in Fort Collins, Lakewood and Pueblo.
* Contact the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Box
9025, Aspen, CO 816112 (970/963-8684), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or
* Contact Jeffrey A. Berman,
president, Colorado Wild, P.O. Box 1525, Boulder, CO 80306
(303/546-9911; fax: 303/546-9922), or see the Web site,