RG National Forest still accepting input on plan

VALLEY — San Luis Valley residents still have a month to let Rio Grande National Forest staff know how they feel about a draft forest plan that will direct how the forest is managed in coming years.

Forest staff members have worked with the public to develop the plan, which is open for public comment through December 29.

This is the first revision of the plan, which provides guidance regarding activities on the RG National Forest, since 1996.

As Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas pointed out, much has changed on the forest since that time.

“The purpose and need for revising the forest plan is the changed economic, social, and ecological conditions in the plan area that have occurred since the current forest plan was approved in 1996,” Dallas stated this fall when the draft was released for public review. “These changes include the spruce beetle infestation, closure of mills and timber-related infrastructure in southwest Colorado, changes in communications technology, increased development along the Forest boundary, and the need to shift fire management direction focused on suppression to the use of fire for resource benefit.”

In a recent “Land, Water and People” column, Mike Blakeman, public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest, added that it is important to remember this is a draft plan for which RGNF staff is seeking input, and the draft environmental impact statement is the analysis of the effects of implementing the proposed plan. Blakeman added that the environmental impact statement also analyzes alternatives to the draft plan to provide an understanding of the effects of other options.

There are four alternatives analyzed in the draft environmental impact statement, including the proposed action, which is Alternative B. Alternative A is the 1996 Forest Plan, which the Forest currently operates under. Alternatives B, C, and D all incorporate public input to make changes to the current plan, and Blakeman pointed out that when Dallas makes a decision on the final plan, it might include parts of all of the alternatives.

The final decision is anticipated next May following an objection process. (Only individuals or entities who submit timely and specific comments about the proposed forest plan will be eligible to file an objection once a draft decision is issued.)  

“The alternatives attempt to capture the diversity of input in order to provide a wide scope to analyze. This then allows the public to review and consider a range of possibilities from which to provide further input,” Blakeman said.

Alternative B, the draft plan that the Forest is proposing, provides for a balance of multiple uses; Alternative C would increase acreage available for multiple uses and reduce the amount of management areas; and Alternative D would propose less active management of resources and increase semi-primitive, non-motorized opportunities.

For one comparison, the proposed alternative would recommend 58,000 additional acres for wilderness designation while the most restrictive alternative for public use, Alternative D, would recommend 285,000 acres for wilderness designation, and Alternative C would recommend no additional acreage for wilderness designation.

In another comparison, timber harvest would be accelerated and increased in Alternative C, which encourages the most public use of the Forest, compared to the proposed Alternative B or Alternative D. Alternative C would incorporate a total annual volume of timber harvest including salvage of 70,000 CCF (hundred cubic feet) in the first six years of the plan compared to 40,000 CCF in the first decade of the preferred plan and 25,000 CCF in the first decade of Alternative D.

Blakeman said the draft plan is broken down into: overarching goals that provide “big picture” guidance such as protecting water resources and terrestrial ecosystems and contributing to economic sustainability; desired conditions representing the vision of what the Forest should look like in the future; concise, measurable objectives, which guide the process and timeline to attain the desired conditions; and standards, guidelines and management approaches that provide constraints and/or site-specific direction. Blakeman said standards and guidelines are harder to change once in place but management approaches can be changed to adapt to changing conditions on the ground.

He pointed out that the draft plan also addresses land suitability, identifying the uses or activities suitable on forest lands. The web site includes management area maps outlining suitable uses in different areas of the forest. For example, these maps show potential areas for wilderness designation. Currently 23 percent of the 1.83 million acres in the Rio Grande National Forest, or 417,000 acres, is designated wilderness and 28 percent or 518,600 acres are designated Colorado Roadless.

The Forest is also habitat for about 300 species of fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, including Canada lynx that were reintroduced in 1999.

The draft plan and environmental impact statement can be found on the Rio Grande National Forest website at https://www.fs.usda.gov.riogrande. The explanations, definitions, tables, alternatives, impacts, appendixes and references total more than 500 pages.

For more information contact Forest Planner Erin Minks at 719-852-5941.

Comments should be directed to Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas by email at [email protected]; by mail to Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor’s Office, Attn: Forest Plan Revision, 1803 W. U.S. Highway 160, Monte Vista, CO 81144; by fax to 719-852-6250; or may be hand delivered to the Supervisor’s Office between 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, except federal holidays. Comments should be received by December 29.