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

The rapid urbanization of the high country has already placed much of the wildlife in the forest under stress. I-70 is like a Berlin Wall for migrating animals, and the spread of vacation homes, fast-food joints and factory outlet stores has pushed many species out of the forest. American peregrine falcons and bald eagles have become a rare sight in some areas; the Canada lynx, which was recently reintroduced into the forest, is barely hanging on; and boreal toads and leopard frogs are disappearing. Plants like the clustered lady-slipper and Penland alpine fen mustard are also threatened by the relentless development.

If any forest is at risk of being loved to death, it's the White River, which now ranks as the fifth-most-visited forest in the country. The question now is whether the government will follow through with its plan to protect the forest.

"There's a misperception that we're closing the forest off to people," says White River planner Carolyn Upton. "That's not true. We still have all the uses we had before. We still want people to be able to hunt and ski, but we need to make sure the underlying health of the forest is maintained. We used to get comment letters saying, 'We need to have this timber sale.' Now people wonder if the wilderness will be there for their kids."

The Wilderness Society’s Suzanne Jones says Colorado will set an example.
Anthony Camera
The Wilderness Society’s Suzanne Jones says Colorado will set an example.
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.
Anthony Camera
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.

For decades, people in the counties that are part of the White River Forest made their livings from the traditional industries of the Old West: ranching, mining and timber. The rise of industrial livestock operations has made it all but impossible for many ranchers to earn enough to make ends meet, however. Mining has been in a free fall for years, and logging has always been a marginal business in the arid mountains, where it takes years for trees to grow to a decent size.

But anyone who's driven along the I-70 corridor recently knows that areas such as Summit and Eagle counties are in the midst of boom times; there are hundreds of trophy homes under construction and help-wanted signs in nearly every window. Each Saturday morning from May through September, caravans of kayakers, campers, climbers, cavers and assorted other weekend warriors stream over the Continental Divide; from November through March, skiers and snowmobilers take their place. These visitors may be drawn by the spectacular scenery, but they bring their wallets with them, and the economy of western Colorado has become increasingly dependent on them.

Recreation is big business, and Americans have embraced the outdoors with a fervor that might surprise even Teddy Roosevelt. Technology has also given recreational enthusiasts new options. Today you can zoom through a forest clearing at 60 mph in a $7,000 Bombardier All-Terrain Vehicle, rappel off a cliff with spring-activated cables, clear a snowdrift in a snowmobile that can move as quickly as a Toyota, and crawl inside a cavern with navigational equipment that was first developed by the military. The forest, once remote and foreboding, is suddenly everybody's backyard.

All of this presents the U.S. Forest Service with a dilemma. Ever since Roosevelt established the national forest system at the beginning of the last century, it has been touted as a "land of many uses." The idea was that well-managed industrial activities could co-exist with recreation and sustain the forest for future generations. But the managers of the White River forest have become increasingly concerned that recreation could be causing permanent damage, and last year they proposed a plan that was widely regarded as unprecedented.

The plan functions as a kind of zoning for the forest, establishing what uses will be permitted in which parts of the forest. The White River's last management plan was completed in 1984 and was highly favorable toward the ski industry. It also allowed snowmobiles and ATVs to have access to vast sections of the forest and gave the ski areas huge latitude for expansion. Because the forest was less crowded, disputes between recreational users -- like the current ill will between cross-country skiers and snowmobilers -- were not as bitter.

When the Forest Service began to update the plan, its staff developed half a dozen alternatives that could guide White River's future. Their ideas ranged from letting ATVs and snowmobiles have the run of hundreds of thousands of acres to shutting down many of the trails inside the forest and dramatically expanding wilderness areas. The Forest Service's favored plan -- known as "Alternative D" -- takes a position between these.

Aside from limiting ski-area growth and commercial uses, Alternative D would also eliminate 600 miles of the current 2,356-mile road system for motorized vehicles. For example, popular, if technically illegal, areas like the Ryan Gulch Trail near Silverthorne, the Mount Thomas Trail in the Sopris District and the June Creek Trail in the Holy Cross District would be off limits for motorized vehicles.

Alternative D made history because in it, plant and animal life take priority over human uses. This simple declaration was enough to elicit howls of protest from Tincup to Topanas.

"They've taken a real radical approach in that they're putting more emphasis on wildlife and nature than on recreation," says Mel Wolf, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association. "Alternative D would shut down the forest for recreation use."

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