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

"What can we do today to ensure that our forests, grasslands and river systems retain their health, diversity and productivity?" Dombeck asked in his annual State of the Forest speech in March. "Our draft forest-planning regulations are based on the simple premise that we cannot meet the social and economic needs of people without first securing the health of the land."

That might seem like tame rhetoric to most Americans -- the majority of whom regularly tell pollsters they favor greatly increased wilderness protection -- but many rural residents see it as a radical challenge to their right to use the public lands. The anger in some areas has been so intense, Forest Service employees have had their lives threatened.

In Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, harassment of forest rangers has included threats with guns and bombs. An effort by the Forest Service to close a washed-out road to protect endangered bull trout led to a confrontation with Elko County officials, who helped local residents bulldoze a new path, dumping tons of silt into the Jarbidge River. Forest supervisor Gloria Flora resigned last fall, saying the lawlessness made her feel like "a despised occupying Army commander." In her letter of resignation, she said Forest Service employees "have been castigated in public, shunned in Nevada communities, refused service in restaurants, and kicked out of motels, just because of who [they] work for."

Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.
Anthony Camera
Illegal roads will be closed under the Forest Service plan.

So far, Forest Service employees in Colorado have escaped such abuse. But the showdown in the White River forest has taken on national implications: If a precedent is set, it will likely influence forest plans all over the United States.

"We see this as a bellwether for how the Forest Service is going to responsibly manage recreation into the future," says Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, which recently placed the White River forest on its list of America's fifteen most-endangered wild places. "If they back down here in the face of industry pressure, it does not bode well for the rest of the country."

Scott McInnis is probably the first congressman in American history to actually put together a management plan for a national forest.

"The congressman thought it was incumbent on him to come up with something better [than Alternative D]," says McInnis spokesman Josh Penry. "This planning process is too important to his district."

McInnis and his staff worked with Richard Woodrow, the former supervisor of the White River forest, to write the plan, which he submitted to the Forest Service in May. Penry says the McInnis plan is a moderate document that incorporates "the best" elements of each of the half-dozen alternatives the Forest Service examined.

In a May 8 letter to White River supervisor Martha Ketelle, McInnis portrays Alternative D as a radical departure from the traditional management of the forest. "For nearly a hundred years, the Forest Service has managed the White River National Forest's 2.25 million acres for multiple use, placing particular emphasis on recreation, in ways consistent with protecting the Forest's biological health," he wrote. "Alternative D calls for a rapid retreat from this multiple-use ethic. The preferred alternative's management summary states that 'a higher priority will be given to physical and biological resources than to human uses of the forest.' This unifying principle in Alternative D is an unjustified reversal of the philosophy that has governed the White River National Forest over the last century."

In November, McInnis convened a closed-door meeting at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce building of interest groups that opposed the plan; he invited representatives of the ski industry, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, the Denver Water Board, and timber-industry and off-road-vehicle interests. That started a process that culminated with the unveiling of McInnis's own "blended alternative" to Alternative D.

The congressman's plan gives many of the interest groups that gathered in Denver last fall exactly what they wanted. It would substantially increase the amount of terrain available for ski-area expansion over the Forest Service proposal, marking 58,198 acres for possible expansions at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain and Keystone, as well as a new ski area near Rifle. ATV users also scored big with McInnis: He would allot 30,357 acres for year-round use and allow for the development of "looped trails" on back roads that the Forest Service would like to close. His plan would also expand snowmobiling terrain by more than 4,000 acres.

McInnis proposes 16,022 acres of new wilderness areas (which are off limits to development); the Forest Service plan calls for 43,000 acres.

Before the release of his proposal, McInnis predicted that "what will bother environmentalists about my plan, keep them up at night, tear up their guts, is that they'll like it."

But that hasn't happened. "Alternative D is the compromise; it was the attempt to strike a balance," says the Wilderness Society's Jones, adding that the Forest Service could have chosen a more extreme alternative that was proposed by environmentalists. She also notes that the controversy over the plan has become political, with Democratic office-holders on the Western Slope largely endorsing it, while Republicans have been mostly opposing it. "The White River plan did not start out as partisan," she says. "So we can thank Scott McInnis for that."

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