Land, Water and People: Public comments vary about the draft forest plan
As many readers know, the Rio Grande National Forest released its draft land management plan and environmental impact statement at the end of September. Following the release, four public meetings were held in Creede, Del Norte, Conejos and Saguache. Attendance was strong and discussions were productive for all involved. Forest employees have also met with county commissioners, state and federal agencies, and special interests representing the timber industry, environmental and sportsmen groups, and water and agricultural groups.
We go to all these meetings because we want as much input as possible to help put together a land management plan that represents the diversity of interests of the people who care about their national forest. The public meetings covered a broad spectrum of themes, while meetings with special interest groups often focused on specific topics.
Some of the more popular topics discussed included wilderness, special interest areas, timber suitability, and oil and gas.
The amount of acres analyzed for wilderness recommendation across the four alternatives ranged from zero in alternatives A and C, to more than 280,000 acres in alternative D. This large difference between alternatives was developed based on public input and provided a wide range to analyze in the draft environmental impact statement. Some people expressed shock at alternative D, while others expressed excitement. It’s important to remember that Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas can recommend areas to be considered for wilderness designation, but only Congress and the president can designate wilderness.
Similar to wilderness, there was a wide range of acres analyzed for the possible designation of special interest areas. Alternative A did not include any new designations, while alternative D designated more than 286,000 acres of special interest areas. Special interest areas come with specific management direction and protections, and include things like the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and areas with a focus on specific attributes such as cultural resources and geology. Dan Dallas has the authority to designate special interest areas in the final forest plan.
There has been, of course, much interest in timber management too. More than 600,000 acres of the Rio Grande National Forest has been infested by spruce beetle and some people want the Forest to aggressively salvage the dead trees to put them to human use while they have commercial value. Many people believe salvaging the dead trees would also reduce the risk of wildland fire. Others don’t think the dead trees increase fire risk (note: the science is unsettled) and think they are best left alone to protect wildlife habitat.
The annual timber harvest volume analyzed varied from 25,000 ccf (100 cubic feet) in alternative D to 70,000 ccf in alternative C. Interestingly, after 10 years, the annual timber output in all the alternatives decreases to less than half the first 10 years. This happens because the dead trees will no longer be viable for commercial sawtimber due to increased rot and deep cracks in the logs.
The availability of lands for oil and gas leasing and development came up at several meetings. Dan Dallas believes the current plan’s direction is sufficient for managing the surface resources even considering new drilling technology, therefore no change is proposed in the draft forest plan. Some argue that new drilling technology needs to be addressed in the plan. It’s important to remember the Forest manages the surface of the land while the Bureau of Land Management manages the federal subsurface mineral estate.
One thing that still keeps coming up at meetings and in written comments is that some people believe Dan Dallas must pick an alternative to be the next forest plan. Dan has the discretion to take pieces of some or all the alternatives to craft the final plan.
For more information about the forest plan revision, visit the Rio Grande National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/riogrande.
Look for the release of the final environmental impact statement and draft decision this summer. The Forest extends a big thank you to all the folks who have participated in the planning process to date!
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.