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Joe Lavorini, Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation (left) and Aaron Drendel, Recreation Program Manager for the Gunnison National Forest (right) help a mountain biker with trail information at the Judd Falls trailhead near Gothic on Aug. 1, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

A new forest plan for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest is riling environmental groups worried about an increase in logging across the 3.2 million-acre forest.

The Draft Record of Decision issued last month — written by Forest Supervisor Chad Stewart — replaces the forest’s 1983 management plan. The plan was launched in 2017 and the forest has collected perspectives from 900 people at 21 open houses and 16 webinars between 2017 and 2021. 

Stewart said the new plan positions his forest for addressing anticipated challenges that include “unprecedented increases in recreation, a changing climate with its potential risk of extreme weather events such as drought and severe wildfire and the need to strategically manage fuels in a rapidly developing wildland-urban interface.”

A coalition of Colorado conservation groups said in a statement that the agency has “sidelined the voices of our community” in crafting a plan that “misses the mark” in protecting wilderness and old-growth forests. 

All nine counties that make up the national forest are unwavering in their support of wildfire mitigation work on public lands. But exactly where that mitigation should take place is raising hackles. The GMUG is getting $20.8 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act — the largest chunk of $63 million in funding for Colorado — for wildfire mitigation and supporting jobs in the forestry industry.  The $20.8 million is for 47 projects that reduce trees — or “hazardous fuels” in the parlance of wildfire mitigation — on 236,245 acres and will support local sawmills in Colorado. 

An alternative plan explored in earlier drafts of the national forest plan proposed 324,000 new acres of wilderness. The final plan sets aside 46,200 acres in 18 wilderness areas. The forest plan identifies 772,000 acres suitable for timber production with loggers producing 55,000 hundred cubic feet — or ccf, which is equal to a hundred cubic feet of volume — of lumber a year. That’s a 300,000-acre increase in acres suitable for logging compared with the 1983 plan. 

“The forest plan takes a major step backwards on protecting mature and old growth forests, despite the Biden Administration’s recent executive order to identify, protect and conserve old growth and mature forests,” reads a statement from the 12 conservation groups. 

The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest spans 3.2 million acres across southwest Colorado. (Forest Service handout)

Rocky Smith with Colorado Wild is an environmentalist who has been fighting with developers and land managers since the 1980s to protect backcountry wilderness. 

He said the conservation groups are troubled by the GMUG’s approval of logging on steep slopes, which could impact water quality. They also have concerns with too few animal and plant species in the plan recognized as needing additional protection before they become threatened or endangered. They also worry about plans to log in habitat that harbors threatened Canadian lynx and a lack of sturdy protections for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse.

Smith does not run across many forest management plans he likes. He has to think back to the 1990s to remember one for the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest that didn’t raise his hackles.

“That was probably the best one I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And yeah, we filed objections to that one too.”

The new GMUG plan emphasizes flexibility in addressing issues and protecting resources. Typically forest plans outline “standards,” which are set-in-stone rules and “guidelines,” which are suggestions for reaching goals. The plans also outline “objectives,” which are hard-set goals and “desired conditions,” which, like guidelines, are more suggestions than rules for reaching certain benchmarks in resource protection. 

Smith said the GMUG plan “has a lot of desired conditions that should be objectives and a lot of guidelines that should be standards.”

He recognizes the need for additional logging to limit the intensity of wildfires. But he wants it closer to homes, roads, powerlines and other infrastructure, not in the backcountry. 

“I started looking at National Forest management plans in the early 1980s when logging was king; before climate change and beetles and fires were such an issue,” he said. “If logging is properly applied around infrastructure, rather than in the backcountry where you create issues with water and wildlife habitat, it can work. The idea that you can log the shit out of the backcountry and that’s going to somehow protect us from fires is not proven by any science.”

The 1983 plan was “overly prescriptive” for timber harvest and used “outdated methods” to manage recreation, wildlife and scenery, Stewart wrote. And it did not mention or address climate change. 

The new plan allocates 28% of the GMUG — 834,000 acres — as Wildlife Management Areas. Combined with the wilderness designation, Stewart’s decision limits trail development on 1.4 million acres — or 52% — of the GMUG and does not impact existing trails. 

One of the more contested aspects of the forest plan involved the balance between motorized and nonmotorized recreational access. The new plan slightly increased summertime motorized access by 59,000 acres, to 30% of the GMUG from 28%. 

The draft plan identified 22 rivers, streams and one lake — totaling 113 miles — are eligible for Wild and Scenic Rivers designation and the GMUG will manage that water to protect its free-flowing character until a Wild and Scenic review is completed. 

The new GMUG plan projects about 5,000 acres a year of timber harvest, up to 15,000 acres a year of wildfire treatment including prescribed burns and 2,000 acres of logging or burning for wildlife habitat.

Advocates for “a robust timber industry” wanted more volume and acres for logging, Stewart noted in his plan. They said limits on logging convey the message that timber harvests have no ecological value, Stewart wrote. 

“However, one primary purpose of a land management plan is to constrain management activities, where necessary, to achieve not only ecological, but also social and economic desired conditions,” he wrote, noting that mitigating adverse effects of logging does not negate ecological benefits of clearing forests. 

All nine counties with GMUG lands supported strategic fuels reduction to mitigate wildfire risk but the counties  were split in identifying specific areas for increased timber production. With regional and local governments crafting climate policies, the first joined the National Forest Foundation in hiring an outside consultant who reviewed the forest plan and identified better ways to integrate climate adaptation into forest management. 

Mike Orndorff, a procurement forester with Montrose Forest Products, a sawmill that produces 350,000 board feet of pine studs a day, urged Stewart in 2021 to better explain how recreation and logging are complementary on public lands. The Montrose sawmill employs 98 workers and 150 subcontractors and sources 98% of its log supply from public lands

“If we don’t manage the landscape through active forest management, catastrophic wildfire and insects and disease will change the forest so drastically that recreation will be drastically impacted,” Orndorff wrote in his comments on the draft plan in 2021. “The same argument could be made for our communities that rely on forested watersheds and wildlife that need healthy forests to survive.”

The plan also removes 2,000 acres of the forest from leasing by coal companies and identifies 41,000 acres — about 70% of the potential coal mining areas — as “may be unsuitable” for coal leases and requiring further study. 

Weston Norris, the general manager of the West Elk Mine in Somerset, the only coal mine operating in the GMUG, wrote comments in 2021 urging Stewart to more closely weigh the role of coal in the regional and national economy. In his comments on the 2021 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Norris said suitability for coal mining should be evaluated in specific lease applications, not forest-wide mandates.

“While there have been mine closures and layoffs that have been impactful to the local economy, it would be even more impactful, not less, to lose the last coal mine in the North Fork Valley and its high paying jobs and royalty and tax revenues, among other community benefits,” Norris wrote. 

The coalition of environmental groups — which includes Colorado Wild, Conservation Colorado, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Wilderness Society and Wilderness Workshop — is studying the 1,156-page Final Environmental Impact Statement and 446-page forest plan and crafting comments that must be filed by the end of the 60-day objection period due by Oct. 30. 

“We have plenty more to say,” Smith said.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...