Tempestuous political winds are blowing through Colorado's busiest forest.

The Glenwood Springs headquarters of the White River National Forest looks like it was furnished during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. Banged-up wooden doors inside the two-story former post office building creak open to reveal antique desks that could have been used by the former president during one of his swaggering, turn-of-the century tours through the Western interior. Filing cabinets that might be Army surplus from World War II are stuffed with reams of federal policy documents, and yellowed maps that line the walls show the borders of the White River Forest, a gigantic sweep that would impress even T.R., who liked to boast that the new American Century would be rooted in the vast forests and prairies of the West.

With 2.27 million acres spread between the Eisenhower Tunnel and Grand Junction, the forest is the heart of Colorado, extending from the sage-covered foothills of Meeker's sheep country to the startling purple rock of the Maroon Bells. It includes land in nine different counties -- from Summit to Mesa -- as well as the headwaters of six rivers. Interstate 70 runs right through the middle of it and delivers more than nine million visitors per year -- double the number that came to the forest just fifteen years ago. They come to ski at some of the largest resorts in North America, including Aspen and Vail; to hike along hillsides; to snowmobile on fresh powder; to fish; or simply to forget about civilization.

But the forest has also become the center of one of the biggest political battles in the state. Concerned about the stress that all of these recreational activities are putting on plant and animal life, the soft-spoken bureaucrats who run the forest have suggested new restrictions for ski-area expansion, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles. The proposed management plan, unveiled last August, also seeks to keep water flowing into the forest's creeks year round and advocates closing hundreds of miles of illegal trails that have been created over the years.

Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.
Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Forest Service wants to make the biological health of the forest the number-one priority in future management decisions. This is a radical departure for an agency that has long worked closely with industries wanting to profit from the forest's resources. For years, timber companies, ski areas and mining firms were able to get just about everything they wanted from the Forest Service.

Now, under pressure from the Clinton administration, the federal agency has begun to change its priorities, and the political fallout has been ferocious. Colorado's Republican congressional delegation has portrayed the Forest Service plan as an act of terrorism against longstanding Western tradition, a radical attack on local businesses and the "common man," who should be allowed to ride his snowmobile wherever he likes.

Representative Scott McInnis, the politically ambitious congressman who represents the Western Slope (which includes White River), wrote a letter to the Forest Service last fall that was signed by all six Republicans in the Colorado delegation. It urged the Forest Service to scrap the plan and start over. "The Forest Service's preferred management alternative is irreconcilably flawed and in need of a complete overhaul," he wrote. "Frankly, it's not even a good sending-off point." In his public comments, McInnis said the Forest Service had become captive to environmental extremists who want to turn the White River forest into a "tree museum" and sabotage recreation. McInnis portrayed himself as a champion of the average Joe who wants to explore the forest without being harassed by federal bureaucrats. "The White River has the reputation of the common man's forest, the place for the blue-collar person who doesn't have the money to buy a place," he told the Rocky Mountain News last May.

A close look at the opposition to the Forest Service plan, however, shows it to be anything but common. Vail Resorts, the ski-industry behemoth that owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone has been leading the charge against the plan because, despite the fact that the number of skier visits to Colorado has plateaued, the company is preparing for several ambitious expansions and mapping out new trails and ski lifts on Forest Service land. Many of these proposed expansions are adjacent to property owned by Vail, where the development of vacation homes and "ski in/ski out" condos promises to earn millions for the firm.

Vail is also a generous contributor to political campaigns, and McInnis has been a particular favorite of the company's. In fact, McInnis has turned opposing the White River management plan into a personal crusade, going so far as to recruit former White River supervisor Richard Woodrow to help him draft an alternative. That proposal, dubbed "McPlan," allows for several major ski areas -- including Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge -- to double in size and also gives the okay for a brand-new ski area near Rifle. (It would also permit four times more timber harvesting than is currently allowed.)

Commercial development isn't allowed on Forest Service land, but new or expanded ski areas like the ones that would be allowed in McInnis's proposal can trigger massive residential and retail development on adjacent private property. Opening a part of the forest to snowmobiles and off-road vehicles can scare away wildlife, while industrial uses like timber harvesting can disrupt whole sections of the ecosystem. Even relatively benevolent activities such as mountain biking and camping have an effect.

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