by Christine Canaly,  SLVEC Director

The Rio Grande National Forest & the revision of their fifteen-year Management Plan

The Forest Plan revision process started in 2014 and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) has stayed involved throughout the entire revision. Their draft Record of Decision (ROD) on the final Plan came out this past August.  SLVEC responded by filing an objection, which was filed on October 1.

We are disappointed; it’s actually gotten worse than the “Proposed Draft Alternative B” which came out in 2017. The public was galvanized, submitting over 400 personal letters from locals who supported Alternative D, the conservation alternative. SLVEC was not alone. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) also filed an objection and highlighted many of our concerns including: excluding big game winter range management areas; no seasonal limits on winter (over the snow) travel; no standards, including monitoring, to manage for Species of Conservation Concern; and interestingly, the Rio Grande National Forest didn’t even consult with CPW, a cooperating agency, before they came out with their final Plan decision. This Plan is important because it will determine how the Rio Grande Forest will be managed over the next 15 years. It is the first forest in Region 2 to be using the revised 2012 Forest Planning Rule.   

There is however, a silver lining.

SLVEC, along with your public input and the Saguache County Commissioners’, were able to get the Forest Service to recommend over 47,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for wilderness.

SLVEC is committed, now more than ever, to push to develop strong land management standards to maintain wildlife corridor connectivity and baseline monitoring.

We will also commit to moving the “Sangre” Wilderness recommendations forward and will look to introducing legislation in coming sessions. Your financial support is so important to us. Please consider donating on-line at: www.slvec.org.

Working with Friends of Wolf Creek to find a long-term solution for Wolf Creek Pass

Brief history: In 2008, Judge John Kane ruled that the Rio Grande National Forest Service must conduct another Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and consider year-round highway access for the “Village at Wolf Creek” (VWC) developers.  In fall 2009, the VWC developers were back with a new, scaled-down version of the Village.  This new proposal included 1,711 units to be constructed in eight phases, beginning with 492 units. The developer also requested another 207-acre land exchange next to the current in-holding. This new piece of property, directly adjacent to Highway 160, would remove the main obstacle—highway access—in order  to move the “Village” development forward.

In 2014, The Forest Service, through a Record of Decision (ROD), approved the land exchange supported by the developers. SLVEC, with Friends of Wolf Creek (FWC), responded by filing a lawsuit in June 2015, challenging the ROD, which would allow the land exchange to move forward. That would provide highway access to a private in-holding whose owner plans to construct a development housing a potential of 8,000 people. This high-altitude location receives an average of 428 inches of snow annually, and provides an important wildlife corridor for many species, including the reintroduced Canadian lynx.

On May 19, 2017, The Honorable Senior Federal District Court Judge Matsch (now deceased) issued an Order. The Federal Judge set aside the Forest Service Wolf Creek Land Exchange and directed the Forest Service to address development impacts on the National Forest and lynx, for any future “Village Proposals.”

In July 2018, the Forest Service responded with the following press release:

“A new draft Record Of Decision from the Rio Grande National Forest is designed to provide reasonable access to the 288-acre parcel via a new road corridor . . .”

The Forest Service press release goes on to say “This new draft decision provides the access that is legally required for private inholdings. Furthermore, this access option was fully analyzed in 2014, so no new analysis is needed. The draft decision is based on Alternative 3, the so called ANILCA alternative, as analyzed in the final environmental impact statement completed for the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project in 2014. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a national authority, grants private land owners surrounded by National Forest System lands a right of reasonable access.”

The issue for SLVEC and FWC partners has always been the interpretation of “reasonable access and use.”  We clearly do not see a large scale development as “reasonable use.”

SLVEC, with FWC, filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in May 2019, challenging the ANILCA Record of Decision (ROD). This decision is based on an EIS from 2012. So much has changed on Wolf Creek Pass: beetle kill (about 90% of the spruce is gone); the West Fork fire complex altered the landscape (vegetation and wildlife adaptation) along the continental divide; and on the federal level, the recent Waters of the US (WOTUS) executive order, impacting wetlands, just to give a few examples.

Judge Matsch passed away this past spring, and the new ANILCA challenge has been reassigned back to Judge John Kane’s court. So, the Wolf Creek issue has run full circle with federal court judges.

SLVEC and partners have continued to Review FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) material (over 100,000 documents) and other research documents to buttress a legal challenge.

SLVEC will continue to educate the public about the significance of the last remaining, largest connective core habitat area left in the southern Rockies, between the south San Juan and Weminuche Wilderness areas, that would be destroyed by this large-scale development. Please consider a SLVEC membership—go to www.slvec.org.

Oppose the current aggressive agenda of opening up large areas of public lands to oil and gas leasing. 

The proposed oil and gas leasing near the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve continues to be postponed. The BLM had proposed to lease 11 parcels totaling 18,360 acres (about 2,660 acres and about 15,700 acres of split-estate private surface) in Huerfano County in its September 2018 lease sale, but that has been delayed, due to Navajo Nation consultation.

SLVEC, Conejos Clean Water, Sierra Club and the local group Citizens for Huerfano County worked to engage the Navajo Nation in this lease sale process, pointing out that the Nation hadn’t been consulted by BLM, regarding the potential leasing, and it made a difference.

SLVEC, with many others, are aware that Mt. Blanca, near the potential oil and gas leasing sale, is a sacred mountain to the Navajo. The public also stepped up because the BLM received over 2,500 public comment responses regarding their draft Environmental Assessment on this potential lease sale.

Working to implement the 2017 Solid Waste Reduction & Recycling Regional-10-year-Management Plan

County commissioners and members of San Luis Valley’s recycling team attended a two-day tour sponsored by SLVEC to see first-hand how recycling gets done in southern Colorado. Eight people participated.

The tour took place on May 30-31, 2019 representing a product of the San Luis Valley Waste Diversion Study to present current operations outside the valley to public officials and to promote education and leadership on recycling.  In order to plan for the future, on-site visits were intended to inform local officials and business leaders about various operational practices currently in use, technical advancements in the recycling industry, market concerns, public cooperation, workforce, and the type of infrastructure and equipment needed to make it happen. Five facilities were visited.

The tour included guided walk-throughs of recycling facilities that served large rural areas. These facilities have invested extensively in the Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) systems and infrastructure to provide the final sorting, handling, and baling of materials ready for shipment to end markets.

Attention was also placed on finding local end markets, or “closed loop” systems for materials which eliminate the high cost of transportation, and examples were shown, like converting office paper to cellulose.

After experiencing the complexities of MRF-based recycling and comparing it to the valley, a Commissioner commented “I think we need to continue to focus on residents sorting their own recyclables rather than switch to single-stream.  Education is key.  We need to encourage people to reduce and reuse.”

SLVEC is currently working to build this education component and plans to research some end market possibilities that could be implemented here, especially focusing on the agricultural sector. 

Donate please!

Your financial support means a lot to us; you can go to www.slvec.org or send a check through US mail to: San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, PO Box 223, Alamosa, CO 81101.