New plan for GMUG forest increases logging, angering environmentalists

This story first appeared on From outsidethe premium outdoors newsletter written by Jason Blevins.

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

A new forest plan for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest is drawing the ire of environmental groups concerned about increased logging across the 3.2 million-acre forest.

The draft record of decision released last month — written by Forest Supervisor Chad Stewart — replaces the forest’s 1983 management plan. The plan was launched in 2017 and the forest collected the views of 900 people at 21 open houses and 16 webinars between 2017 and 2021.

Stewart said the new plan positions his forest for anticipated challenges that include “unprecedented increases in recreation, climate change with the potential for extreme weather events such as drought and severe wildfires, and the need to strategically manage fuels on rapidly growing wildlands.” Urban interface.”

A coalition of Colorado conservation groups said in a statement that the agency “marginalized the voices of our community” in crafting a plan that “misses the mark” on 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 this dilution should occur is irritating. GMUG is getting $20.8 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act — the largest portion of Colorado’s $63 million in funding — to mitigate wildfires and support jobs in the forestry industry. $20.8 million is earmarked for 47 projects that will reduce trees — or “hazardous fuels” in wildfire mitigation parlance — on 236,245 acres and will support local sawmills in Colorado.

An alternative plan explored in previous drafts of the National Forest Plan proposed 324,000 new acres of wilderness. The final plan designated 46,200 acres in 18 wilderness areas. The forest plan identifies 772,000 acres suitable for timber production where loggers produce 55,000 cubic feet — or ccf, which is equivalent to one hundred cubic feet of volume — of lumber annually. This represents a 300,000-acre increase in acres suitable for logging compared to the 1983 plan.

“The forest plan takes a major step back in protecting mature and old-growth forests, despite the Biden administration’s recent executive order to identify, protect and preserve old-growth and mature forests,” a statement from 12 conservation groups said.

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

Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild is an environmental activist who has been fighting with developers and land managers since the 1980s to protect backcountry wildlife.

He said conservation groups are upset that GMUG has approved logging on steep slopes, which could affect water quality. They also have concerns about the very few animal and plant species included in the plan that are recognized as needing additional protection before they become threatened or endangered. They are also concerned about plans to log onto habitats housing the endangered Canadian lynx, and the lack of robust protection for the endangered Gunnison’s grouse.

Smith doesn’t see many of the forest management plans he likes. He has to go back to the 1990s to remember one Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest that didn’t arouse his wrath.

“That was probably the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And yes, we have filed objections to that as well.”

The new GMUG plan emphasizes flexibility in addressing issues and protecting resources. Forest plans usually specify “norms,” which are fixed rules, and “guidelines,” which are suggestions for achieving goals. Plans also specify “objectives,” which are difficult to define and “desired conditions,” which, like guidelines, are suggestions rather than rules for reaching specific standards in resource protection.

The GMUG plan “has a lot of desirable conditions that should be goals and a lot of guidelines that should be standards,” Smith said.

He recognizes the need to cut additional trees to reduce the severity of wildfires. But he wants them closer to homes, roads, power lines and other infrastructure, rather than in remote areas.

“I started looking at National Forest management plans in the early 1980s when logging was king; before climate change and beetles and fires became such a problem,” he said. “If logging is applied properly around infrastructure, not in areas Where remote areas create water and wildlife habitat issues, this can work. The idea that you can log out of remote areas and this will somehow protect us from fires has not been proven by any science.

The 1983 plan was “overly prescriptive” regarding timber harvest and used “outdated methods” for recreation, wildlife and landscape management, Stewart wrote. He did not mention or address climate change.

The new plan designates 28% of GMUG — 834,000 acres — as wildlife management areas. Besides the wilderness designation, Stewart’s decision limits trail development to 1.4 million acres — or 52% — of GMUG and does not affect existing trails.

One of the most controversial aspects of the forest plan concerns the balance between motorized and non-motorized recreational access. The new plan resulted in a slight increase in summer mechanical access by 59,000 acres, to 30% of GMUG from 28%.

The draft plan identified 22 rivers, streams and one lake — totaling 113 miles in length — as eligible for Wild and Scenic Rivers designation and GMUG will manage those waters to protect their free-flowing character until the Wild and Scenic review is completed.

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

Stewart noted in his plan that advocates for a “strong timber industry” wanted more space and acres for logging. Stewart wrote that restrictions on logging convey the message that logging has no environmental value.

“However, one of the primary purposes of a land management plan is to restrict management activities, where necessary, to achieve not only environmental conditions, but also desired social and economic conditions,” he wrote, noting that mitigating the harmful effects of logging does not negate the environmental benefits. From clearing forests.

All nine counties comprising GMUG lands supported strategic fuel reduction to mitigate wildfire risk, but counties were divided in identifying specific areas to increase timber production. As regional and local governments formulated climate policies, the former joined the National Forest Foundation in appointing an outside consultant who reviewed the forest plan and identified better ways to integrate climate adaptation into forest management.

Mike Orndorff, a forester at Montrose Forest Products, a sawmill that produces 350,000 board feet of pine nails a day, urged Stewart in 2021 to better articulate how recreation and logging can be better integrated on public lands. The Montrose sawmill employs 98 workers and 150 subcontractors and produces 98% of its timber supply from public lands

“If we do not manage the landscape through active forest management, catastrophic wildfires, insects, and diseases will alter the forest so fundamentally that recreation will be greatly impacted,” Orndorff wrote in his comments on the draft plan in 2021. It can be made for our communities that depend on forested watersheds and wildlife that need healthy forests to survive.

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

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

“Although mine closures and layoffs have impacted the local economy, it will be more impactful, not less, the loss of the last coal mine in the North Fork Valley and its high-paying jobs, tax revenues and royalties, 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 final 1,156-page environmental impact statement and 446-page forest plan and drafting comments that must be submitted before the end of the 60-day objection period scheduled by October 30.

“We have a lot to say,” Smith said.

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