Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
December 1999 / January 2000


Wildlife, Wilderness May Suffer Under New White River National Forest Plan

by Mike Smith, RMC Wildlife Chair

One of the five most popular forests in the country, the White River National Forest in central Colorado spans roughly 2.25 million acres and contains such spectacular places as the Maroon Bells, Flat Tops, and Holy Cross Wilderness Areas. More than 9 million people visit the forest each year to hike, raft, fish, rock climb, hunt, and enjoy world-class downhill skiing at Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, and other resorts. The White River is also prime habitat for elk (the nation’s largest herd lives there), peregrine falcons, Colorado cutthroat trout, lynx, and roughly 300 other species. 

The U.S. Forest Service has released a draft environmental impact statement with six alternatives for managing the White River for the next ten to 15 years. Each of these land-use plans zones the forest for different activities: logging, wildlife habitat, different kinds of recreation, etc. Conservationists are backing a citizens’ management alternative (Alternative I) that would protect wilderness and wildlife from unchecked motorized recreation, excessive ski-area expansions, logging, road building, and other development.

The Forest Service’s preferred alternative (Alternative D) would not protect nearly as much of the forest. It recommends wilderness designation for only 47,200 acres or about 16 percent of the roughly 300,000 acres eligible. Congress has designated nearly a third of the forest as Wilderness but much of it is above 10,000 feet, leaving lower-elevation and biologically richer areas vulnerable. Because Colorado loses 90,000 acres of open space annually, and rapid population growth is occurring in the five counties surrounding the White River National Forest, protecting remaining undeveloped land is critical.

Conservationists also are concerned that Alternative D would allow excessive logging in areas managed for forest carnivores: lynx, wolverine and marten. Although recreational use would be limited in these areas, increased clearcutting of lodgepole pine would be allowed, ostensibly to create more habitat for snowshoe hare, an important prey for lynx. But the scientific evidence to justify increased logging is weak, and conservationists say that allowing natural processes—fire, windstorms—to shape the forest would be more beneficial in the long run.

Despite its shortcomings, Alternative D would impose considerable limits on motorized use of the forest, including placing large areas off-limits to snowmobiles. Widespread ORV use is damaging wildlife habitat, cutting unauthorized trails through roadless areas, and ruining the forest for people seeking quieter recreational experiences. 

Alternative D would:

The motorized recreation lobby is railing against what it describes as unfair restrictions, even though under Alternative D, nearly a million acres would still be open to snowmobiling in the winter and nearly 1.3 million acres would be open to ORVs in the summer. Not to mention that there are more than two and a half times as many hikers as ORV users on the forest and nearly twice as many cross-country skiers as snowmobile users. Data collected by the Forest Service shows that winter non-motorized activities are increasing faster than snowmobile use. The industry-funded Blue Ribbon Coalition, Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, and White River Forest Alliance, are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a media and lobbying campaign to pressure the Forest Service to back down. 

Controversy is also raging over elements of Alternative D that would limit downhill ski-area expansions to current permit boundaries, which most ski areas have not yet come close to filling. The ski industry’s alternative (Alternative E) would allow for massive expansions and construction of aerial tramways connecting major resorts along I-70, increasing sprawl and traffic congestion, destroying wildlife habitat.

Governor Bill Owens, U.S. Representative Scott McInnis, and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell have spoken out strongly against the Forest Service’s preferred alternative. Whether the White River National Forest will become a playground for industrialized recreation or not is a matter of political will. The Forest Service desperately needs to hear from people who want to ensure that the wildlife and wild lands on the White River are protected.


Take Action !

Write to the Forest Service before the public comment period ends on February 9.

Send your letter to: Martha Ketelle, Forest Supervisor, White River National Forest, P.O. Box 948, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, 81602. 

For more information, look for WRNF action alerts on these web sites:,, 

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