SILVERTHORNE, Colorado — In early March, Mozart Creek lies silent under ice. Saggy snow marshmallows cover the boulders along the streambed, while moss-draped spruce and fir tower above. Come spring, the drainage will bubble and sing with melted snow from the surrounding peaks, and from the ski trails and service roads at the Keystone Ski Area. This small stream and dozens of others in the 2.4 million-acre White River National Forest could be in trouble. Last December, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary David P. Tenny dusted off rarely used "discretionary review" powers, and ordered forest officials to ditch a series of protective water standards outlined in the forest master plan adopted almost three years ago. Tenny also directed the Forest Service to remove a provision requiring the agency to assess impacts to lynx habitat.
Some forest officials downplay the revisions as administrative housekeeping. Others, however, say the old rules are at the heart of their water quality program, and wonder if the changes will hinder their ability to measure impacts from snowmaking and trail projects, and from wildfire and forest health proposals.
The Denver Post lashed out at the changes: In an editorial, it called Tenny’s order "an egregious example of the Bush administration’s fraudulent claims about heeding science, local control and public input."
This is just the latest twist in the long-running saga of the White River National Forest plan revision (HCN, 7/8/02: White River Forest plan friend to all - and to none). The plan, five years in the making, included a record level of involvement from the public, county commissioners and Colorado’s congressional delegation. It was adopted in June 2002, by then-Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, who said it represented a fair balance among many interests, including the ski industry, ranchers, four-wheelers, mountain bikers and conservation groups.
Anticipating increased use from people on the booming Front Range, the plan calls for well-managed recreational development, including potential expansions at ski areas like Breckenridge, Vail and Arapahoe Basin. At the same time, it included some of the most protective natural resource standards in any recent forest plan, according to Environmental Protection Agency staffers who reviewed it.
Before joining the Bush administration as a deputy to Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, Tenny worked for Oregon Rep. Bob Smith, R, and was one of the strongest opponents to Clinton-era Forest Service reform, including the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. As one of Rey’s lieutenants, Tenny now helps implement what many critics regard as major rollbacks of the Clinton administration’s environmental gains.
Tenny’s review of the forest plan may have been prompted by the Colorado ski industry: The Vail Resorts filed a voluminous appeal of the White River plan and urged the Forest Service to drop or dilute its strict water standards. "If applied literally, they have the potential to dramatically hinder or obstruct the diversion of water for snowmaking, complicate the routine exercise of water rights and call into question other long-standing uses of water rights," said the appeal.
Those water standards essentially require the Forest Service to maintain or improve water quality and aquatic habitat. They also direct the agency to maintain sufficient stream flows to protect scenic values, along with fish and wildlife.
Vail Resorts also objected to provisions protecting an area called Jones Gulch for lynx and other wildlife, because it wanted to build ski lifts there for its Keystone resort. In the 1990s, Vail fought a drawn-out — and ultimately victorious — battle with environmentalists over its expansion into high-elevation lynx habitat. In 1998, arsonists burned a mountaintop restaurant at Vail "in the name of the Canada lynx" (HCN, 12/7/98: Vail and the road to a recreational empire).
After Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth rejected Vail Resorts’ appeal in late 2004, company representatives met with Tenny to discuss the plan and the discretionary review process, says Harris Sherman, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, which often represents the ski company.
"We did ask him to look at our appeal carefully. Many of those standards are impossible to comply with," Sherman says.
In some cases, Sherman adds, the plan’s standards conflict with other Forest Service directives, particularly a recent agreement between the White River National Forest and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that outlines a collaborative process for resolving water issues.
But Regional Forest Chief Rick Cables, who signed the recent water agreement with the state, also approved the White River plan and supported its water standards. "I signed the plan, so I didn’t think they were impossible," he says.
Cables says the discretionary review process Tenny used is "not unprecedented but not real common." A Clinton administration appointee used the same process to alter a plan for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, he says. But Cables would rather not see this kind of change happen, he says: "My preference is to let the professionals work it out."
The White River National Forest is now studying Tenny’s rule changes. If staffers believe the changes will have a significant impact on water quality or lynx habitat, the agency will have to go back to the drawing board with another lengthy environmental study.