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Know the West

White River Forest plan friend to all - and to none



When a draft plan for how to manage Colorado's White River National Forest was released in 1999, it was hailed as a precedent that would steer the agency toward emphasizing endangered species habitat and conservation over resource extraction and recreation (HCN, 1/17/00: STOP - A national forest tries to rein in recreation). Now, five years, $5 million and 14,000 public comments since the process began, the final plan is "less of a flagship and more of a frigate," says Chris Wood. Wood, who currently works for Trout Unlimited and was assistant to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service under the last administration, says, "The guts of the plan about protecting health and diversity of the forest are gone."

Well, maybe. While, in the several weeks since the plan's release wildlife and wilderness advocates, recreationists and water users have spouted enough rhetoric to dampen the 1,200-page document, the Forest Service says the plan tries to give all sides a little bit. Ski areas along the Interstate 70 corridor in Summit and Eagle counties can now expand beyond permit boundaries, while others farther from Denver are largely limited to existing borders; a provision to assure minimum flows in 10 percent of forest streams was eliminated; logging will be allowed on 400,000 of the 600,000 roadless acres; and 15 new parcels of land, or 82,000 acres, are designated as wilderness.

"The fact that nobody thinks they got everything they wanted usually says we struck a good balance," says Martha Ketelle, supervisor of the White River National Forest. "I'm really proud of this plan; we can only go so far to bring disparities together."

Yet, some question the value of the planning process itself.

"The Forest Service now writes plans so liberally that 99 percent of the plan doesn't actually do anything to the trees or the land," says Andy Stahl, director of the nonprofit group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "Any real, live decision, such as ski area expansion, will require new environmental studies and public comment, and it is only at that stage that the public can sue. People are fighting an ideological war over nothing."

The planning process is far from over. While no one has filed an appeal yet, groups can do so until September. The agency still has to tackle the meatiest - and many say the most controversial - aspect of managing the forest: determining which roads and trails are open to mountain bikes and off-road vehicles. The agency plans to begin its travel-management plan in 2004.