Local media portrayed it as a victory for conservation, but a coalition of Colorado environmental groups is lambasting a new management plan for the White River National Forest, released by the U.S. Forest Service on June 4.
The document, five years in the making, will govern how the 2.3-million-acre forest on Colorado's Western Slope is managed for the next 15 years. It's also seen as a model for future, similar plans governing other U.S. national forests.
According to the White River Coalition of conservationist groups, a 1999 draft of the plan contained positive measures to protect the forest against logging, depletion of streams, expansion of ski areas and heavy use of motorized vehicles.
But the draft drew fire from Rep. Scott McInnis, a Western Slope congressman, who said it went too far in restricting uses of the forest, and from groups representing loggers, ski areas and the motorized-recreation industry.
And last year, the Bush administration came to power, advocating for more resource extraction on domestic public lands.
The result, the conservationists say, is that the final plan has retreated from several key provisions proposed in 1999.
"The Forest Service had a chance to make the White River the greatest wild place south of Yellowstone," said Richard Compton of the Carbondale, Colo.based White River Conservation Project. "They blew it."
According to the White River Coalition, the draft plan would have restricted motorized travel, limited ski-area expansions, required protections of flow levels in many streams, and recognized 298,000 new acres as eligible for wilderness designation.
The final plan postpones making decisions on motorized travel, allows ski areas to expand into wildlife habitat, abandons the stream-flow protection requirements, and recommends just 82,000 new acres for wilderness designation, the coalition complained.
However, Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Froeschle said the plan represents an increase in conservation compared with the plan that's been in place until now, which was adopted in 1984.
"It was just a draft," she said of the 1999 document. "The real comparison, ultimately, is against the 1984 plan."
Froeschle said the final plan turned out differently from the draft for a number of reasons. "We got new directions, new policy from the Washington office."
But the most significant factor, she said, was public comments, of which the Forest Service received more than 60,000. Among those commenting was McInnis, who disliked the 1999 draft so much he wrote his own, alternative plan. "We certainly did look at that," Froeschle said.
McInnis said last week that he was largely pleased by the plan and that the Forest Service appeared to have been "substantially persuaded by the merits of our roadmap."
Conservationists indicated they are likely to file appeals against the plan.
-- Terje Langeland