Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
February / March 1998


Urbanization: Loving the White River National Forest to Death
by Amy Hadden Marsh

These days, playing in the woods may be tantamount to environmental destruction. Recent Roaring Fork Valley statistics show a population increase of approximately 11.4% in Pitkin County, 38% in Garfield County, and 37% in El Jebel and western portions of Eagle County since 1990. Housing developments, ranging from lower income employee housing to 7,500 square foot trophy mansions, are on the rise from Aspen to Rifle. Aspen Glen and River Valley Ranch, two developments currently under construction near Carbondale, promise a combined total of 1,885 housing units upon completion. Another proposed development west of Glenwood Springs near Silt boasts a total of 1,200 units. These developments alone stand to increase the local population by an estimated 8,000 people. Recreationists have long been attracted to the area's internationally-renowned alpine terrain and world-class skiing. The local population boom, however, may be turning recreation into a threat, adding impacts to an already fragmented landscape. Once-remote forest retreats are being inundated by tourists and residents alike whose desire for a "Western Colorado outdoor experience" has made headlines. We are all loving our forest to death at a time when the United States Forest Service (USFS) has no method for determining the amount of recreational use on the Forest or its environmental effects.

The Mt. Sopris Group of the Sierra Club covers Pitkin and Garfield Counties. As the result of increased Forest use, several urgent local issues are currently competing for that Group's Group's attention.

The Basalt Mountain Timber Sale
The Sierra Club is opposed to this sale which would open 1,400 acres (41% of the mountain) to several types of clear-cutting. The current USFS Environmental Impact Statement on the sale does not address the significance of the mountain's ecosystem in relation to increasing local development and population, nor does it include a plan to manage the impacts of increased recreational use. 41% of the mountain is too much to cut. It is the last uncut area of the mountain other than rock falls, clearings, and steep slopes. Some areas were cut in the 1980's and subsequent damage, such as noxious weed infestation, ineffective road closures, and hazardous jack-strawed timber, has not been addressed. Large scale timber cutting will do nothing but perpetuate existing problems. The Mount Sopris Group has urged the Forest Service to cancel the proposed sale until problems created by past timber sales have been resolved. The Club also believes that natural processes of mountain ecosystems must be allowed to govern forest health.

A Citizens' Management Alternative
The Mount Sopris Group is also developing its own Citizens' Management Alternative (CMA) as a viable candidate for analysis in the White River National Forest's upcoming Forest Plan Revision. The CMA, along with similar efforts in Wyoming and other National Forests in Colorado, articulates the vision that National Forest lands are some of the few remaining places where the full range of natural forces can occur with negligible human disturbance. The CMA proposes a Biodiversity Reserve System for the White River National Forest composed of large core reserve areas surrounded by areas of low-impact human use, and connected by biological corridors. The CMA is being presented to conservation groups and individuals in the vicinity of the Forest during the public scoping phase of the revision process.

Deep Creek: Potential Wild and Scenic River
Fall 1996 marked the beginning of a large-scale public information and letter-writing campaign to support the Wild & Scenic Designation for Deep Creek, northeast of Glenwood Springs. This rugged canyon, home to black bear, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep, is threatened by logging and gravel mining development as well as the pressures of increased tourism. This past summer, the Mount Sopris Group teamed with Lighthawk to give aerial tours of Deep Creek for Scott McInnis (R-CO) and David Skaggs (D-CO) as well as local government officials, press, and other concerned citizens.

Despite overwhelming support for the designation, the USFS refuses to begin the next phase, the suitability study, of the Deep Creek analysis until the completion and implementation of the Forest Plan Revision. Forest Service officials also deny the existence of immediate threats to the area. Consequently, suitability determination could be delayed until 2001. The Club's efforts continue to focus on convincing the USFS of the urgency of this crucial next phase.

The East Divide Creek Area
Cumulative impacts concerns have also prompted the Club to investigate habitat fragmentation in the East Divide Creek Area. Of these 250,000 acres of BLM, private, and National Forest lands extending west of Glenwood Springs and south of I-70 to the southern forest boundary, 139,087 acres are National Forest. Like much of the White River National Forest, the area has been managed for timbering, grazing, and oil and gas extraction. It is also very popular with hunters and recreationists, particularly those interested in OHV use. The land is heavily criss-crossed with roads.

In the early 1990's, as result of the high level of activity and development, the USFS chose this area for a cumulative impacts analysis to determine the condition of the ecosystem. The study was shelved in 1994, however, due to Congressional budget cuts. Yet, despite habitat fragmentation and possible overuse, the area continues to be developed. The USFS continues to offer timber sales. 175 miles of roads, 5,234 animals on 138,682 acres of grazing allotments combined with ineffective road closures, and unregulated ATV, snowmobile, and dogsled use add up to unrestrained multiple use. To date, our analysis has found little plan for restoration or overall cumulative impact mitigation. Thankfully, the USFS appears interested in addressing illegal road closures in the near future.

Flattops Road Inventory
The Mount Sopris Group's Road Inventory Project on the Flat Tops, north of Glenwood Springs, grew out of a need to understand the impacts and extent of roads on the White River National Forest. This effective, summer volunteer project surveyed over 175 roads and road closures, monitoring erosion, noxious weed infestation, general condition, and primary use as well as illegal roads and road closure effectiveness. Results of this project, presented to the Forest Service, show that many damaging roads have not been mapped by the Forest Service. The Club will use this project as a model for similar projects on the East Divide Creek Area next summer.

Public Involvement is Needed!
Results of these projects have led the Club to discuss cumulative impact mitigation with Forest Service officials and to begin to educate the public about how to live in balance with wildlife. This is no easy task. Urbanization looms large over our world-famous Western Colorado experience. Local citizens must take action now to slow local population growth. Forest officials must re-examine the traditional, utilitarian paradigm of forest management, or the combination of recreational demand and traditional forest uses will push activities farther and farther into the backcountry, displacing wildlife and crowding out solitude and sanity.

What You Can Do:
If you would like to get involved with the Mount Sopris Group of the Sierra Club in addressing White River National Forest management issues, please contact Beverly Compton in Carbondale at (970) 963-8684.