USFS releases Draft Forest Plan. Alternative D strongly supported in Saguache County
by Susan M. Pierce
The citizens of the San Luis Valley have a rare opportunity to have a say in the management policies of their local National Forest—one they will not have for another few decades. For the first time in 21 years, (since 1996), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is developing a new management plan for Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF). This Plan will guide how different zones within the Sangre de Cristo, La Garita and San Juan Mountain ranges, which comprise RGNF, will be managed for the next 15-20 years. RGNF is approximately 1.83 million acres and surrounds the San Luis Valley from Saguache to Antonito. It is the National Forest in which we camp, fish and hunt, bird watch, horseback ride, graze cattle, collect firewood, and from which we obtain our precious water. The USFS released a draft forest management plan on September 29 and is hosting four public meetings in November and accepting public comments on the four alternatives presented in the draft until December 29, 2017 (see information box for details).
The four alternatives can be briefly summarized by the following:
Alternative A: No Action. Same 1996 Plan.
Alternative B: Increased logging and less protection for water & wildlife than exists today. This is recognized as the “preferred” plan by the USFS.
Alternative C: The commodity extraction, pro-development alternative
Alternative D: Strongest protections for wildlife and water and proposes 285,000 acres of wilderness and five Special Interest Areas.
Obviously, when making big decisions, it is best to have as many facts available as possible. To this end a coalition of science-based advocacy groups (including The Wilderness Society, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Wild, and Quiet Use Coalition) spent two years researching the RGNF and collecting data to inform the revised Plan. They analyzed the data to identify the best areas for recommended wilderness based on a variety of factors, including roadlessness, distance from urban/wildland areas that benefit from fire zone buffers, presence of wildlife migration pathways, valuable watersheds, low to non-existent use by off-road vehicles or mountain bikes, and high biodiversity. Their findings resulted in the recommendation of 14 areas for wilderness (8 expansions of existing areas and 6 stand-alone areas) and 5 Special Interest Areas (“the Conservation Proposal”). Interestingly, Trout Unlimited conducted a separate study to identify areas important for fish and wildlife protection, with significant overlap in the results.
Many individuals and groups residing in Saguache County and the SLV as a whole have written into the USFS to express their support for these recommendations, almost all of which are included within Alternative D. Residents, businesses and spiritual centers of Crestone have highlighted the role that pristine wilderness plays in attracting their clientele, while those in agriculture have noted the role that wilderness plays in protecting the valley’s water sources.
Most of us in the valley have a personal connection to this area, and would like it to remain unchanged. Managing an area as wilderness is one way to help it remain the same. This is because an area can only qualify for recommended wilderness if it currently meets specific criteria. The purpose of managing an area as wilderness is to maintain it as is and protect it from uses that would degrade these qualities. Alternative D recommends 285,000 acres of wilderness and five special interest areas that were researched, vetted, and proposed by local conservation organizations. Alternative D, if adopted, would protect and help restore cutthroat trout populations, maintain healthy wildlife herds, and preserve the beautiful mountain scenery that makes the valley so special.
Three local areas recommended for conservation designations and included in Alternative D:
• Summer Coon/La Ventana Special Interest Area. : 22,400 acres
This proposed Special Interest Area (SIA) is north of Del Norte and incorporates the entirety of the existing 8,441-acre Elephant Rocks Special Interest Area. It would include the Natural Arch/La Ventana which has cultural significance and various archaeological sites. The area is renowned as an important geologic site: it is a preserved volcano which existed about 30 million years ago on the scale of today’s Mt. Mazama. It is noteworthy because it marks the beginning of the Rio Grande rift—about 34 million years ago—when rising magma was threatening to pull the continental plate apart. The proposed special interest area is also recognized by the State of Colorado as having high biodiversity significance because of the rare plants that can be found there. Alternative B, the Forest Service’s preferred alternative, prescribes logging and grazing, and would allow mining or oil and gas exploration. In contrast, the Conservation Proposal, reflected in Alternative D, proposed development of sustainable ecotourism with a driving/biking interpretive tour, and would disallow oil and gas or mineral development. There is potential to enhance the area’s recreation including mountain biking on the scenic roads.
• Antora Meadows Recommended Wilderness Area : 27,000 acres
This proposed recommended area lies along the San Juan and Sawatch ranges along the northern rim of the SLV and constitutes one of Colorado’s largest unprotected roadless areas in the Cochetopa Hills. It would connect protected wilderness areas in the San Juans, with those in the Sawatch, Elk and Sangre de Cristo ranges. The area’s 20 miles of non-motorized trails often run parallel to streams with lush vegetation, making it an outstanding destination for horseback riding, fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing. In addition, the large size of this roadless area provides great habitat for deer and elk, and thus backcountry hunting. Significantly, the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout in Antora Meadows is considered 99% genetically pure. This area encompasses many stream tributaries, making it an important watershed.
Alternative B proposed to manage Antora Meadows as a roadless area, which technically leaves it available to energy development. Alternative D recommends it as wilderness.
• Butterfly Creek-Miller Creek, Cotton Creek, Kit Carson Peak & Blanca Peak additions to Sangre de Cristo Wilderness: 31,600 acres
These proposed additions effectively extend the wilderness to logical landscape boundaries, and strengthen protection for the two most visited peaks in the Sangres. Rather than wilderness designation starting at an arbitrary point in the National Forest, the boundaries are extended downslope to the base of the USFS, to enhance stream corridor preservation. Many of the creeks within these additions are ranked as Very High Biodiversity Significance by CNHP.
The Kit Carson Peak addition is located on the rugged west slope that was under private ownership for the prior hundred years and thus has no designated National Forest system trails. Due to sparse access, this area has remained remarkably pristine, providing an outstanding sense of remoteness and solitude.
The Blanca Peak addition was proposed as a Special Interest Area in the Conservation Proposal, to be managed for its natural and cultural values. Both Blanca Peak and Little Bear Peak are “14ers”, that draw thousands of visitors each year. Blanca Peak has enormous cultural significance as a sacred peak among the Navajo, Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Pueblo peoples. Wilderness or SIA management would increase the protected area size, connect it to the Trinchera Ranch, which has compatible management under a conservation easement, and ensure appropriate visitor management.
Both Alternative B and D propose to manage these additions to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area as recommended wilderness.
Why it is important to support stronger protection designations
Some may argue that leaving the Forest Plan “flexible” is a wise decision. However, as we are seeing over and over again in relation to our public lands, “flexible” is vulnerable. Without the high level of protection that a wilderness recommendation gives, our most precious places remain open to the threat of oil and gas leasing and exploration, as well as other uses that could lead to degradation and curtail traditional uses. Recommended wilderness status has adaptability built into the designation in cases of natural and manmade disturbances. Management in Special Interest Areas is tailored-made to enhance the special attributes of the area. This is why many who support wilderness protection are in strong support of Alternative D.
In order to conserve the qualities you appreciate in RGNF for your family and for generations to come, seize this opportunity to participate in the public comment period by submitting comments and attending the public meetings in early November. Invite a friend and share a ride. You will not have another chance for approximately 20 years!