The nation's top outdoor-recreation official, Lyle Laverty, isn't scheduled to take over the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region until November, and Colorado environmentalists are already howling like a pack of wolves.
"Recreation is the new game," says Roz McClellan of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, "and as a result, [the Forest Service] has thrown ecological values out the window."
Environmentalists like McClellan see Laverty's arrival as a harbinger of the Forest Service's increased emphasis on recreation, which they feel could turn out to be more detrimental to public lands than even their perennial pet peeve, logging. "Are we better off with Honda and Kawasaki or Louisiana Pacific and Stone Container?" asks McClellan. "[Damage from] timber harvesting will be invisible twenty years from now, but the effects of recreation will last forever."
However, Ed Ryberg, the Forest Service's Colorado-based winter-sports resort coordinator, says Laverty shouldn't take the blame. "The Rocky Mountain region has always been a recreation-based region," says Ryberg. "It's never been a question in our minds that in Colorado, recreation has eclipsed everything else, including logging, as the biggest revenue-generator."
And generating revenue, says Ryberg, is a key factor in determining the Forest Service's course of action. According to the agency's latest resource planning report, logging isn't paying the bills like it used to.
Laverty says that by the year 2000, 75 percent of the agency's contribution to the gross national product will come from recreation.
"Because of this," he says, "our focus has shifted from timber, because the reality is that if we continue to harvest timber at the rate we have historically, recreation will suffer. Recreation is the moneymaker, but the catch is that without a healthy forest setting, people are going to spend their time elsewhere."
He should know. The Forest Service's national director of recreation since 1992, Laverty was responsible for developing recreational policy throughout the U.S. But after five years of "balancing" the agency's land-use policy against environmentalists' wishes, Laverty says, he's ready to get back into the woods. He'll be bringing his political skills with him. "The main thing we have to do," he says, "is instill an ethic in people who use the land so that they treat the forests in a positive fashion. It's going to be a huge learning curve for me, but I'm anxious to get out there and start talking to people."
And he's eager to hit the slopes. An avid skier, Laverty calls his relocation to Colorado from Washington, D.C., a "delightful benefit" of his new job.
Laverty will be replacing Elizabeth Estill, who will take over Forest Service operations in the southeastern U.S. Local environmentalists aren't sorry to see her go.
"Estill's record was miserable," says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation. "She was the most difficult regional forester in the country and was totally uncooperative, along with being a pusher for off-road motor-vehicle use and encroachment into undisturbed wilderness lands for logging.
"But," adds Carlton, "if Laverty is going to push recreation like we think he will, it could be a disaster."
Not for the ski industry.
"We're thrilled to have Lyle coming out here," says Sam Anderson, an attorney for the National Ski Areas Association, which lobbies on behalf of 325 ski resorts nationwide. "Lyle's attended our last two national conventions, and as a result, he has a tremendous insight into our industry's challenges and the direction we're going. The only negative is that we're going to be losing him on a national level."
Off-road enthusiasts are just as happy about Laverty. "Last year we lost sixty miles of road open to off-road vehicles," says Adam Mehlberg, land-use director of the Colorado Four-Wheel Drive Association. "But from what I've heard, [Laverty] understands the way to balance environmental concerns without limiting motorized recreation. And from our standpoint, the fact that he's got a recreational background as opposed to being an '-ologist' is a good thing."
Outdoor enthusiasts like Laverty used to be seen as friends of the environment, but conservation groups increasingly contend that the growing demand for outdoor recreation is wreaking havoc on national forests. They argue that ski-resort construction, off-road vehicles and mountain bikers not only drive reclusive animals out of their natural habitats, but also create trails that irreversibly damage soil and plants. "There's no shortage of favor for the Forest Service from ski resorts and the like," says Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Sometimes it seems like the Forest Service is acting as an agent for the ski areas, especially since the Forest Service has been promoting this sort of industrial-strength recreation."
Colorado environmentalists are already firing warning shots at Laverty, sending letters of concern and other documents to his D.C. office.
"I don't have a problem with ski resorts or recreational trails," says Jasper Carlton, "but we're afraid that Laverty is going to allow all-out development and the forests won't tolerate it."
McClellan points to the impact caused by the 100,000 mountain bikers she estimates visited Vail last summer.
"The mountain bike is dangerous," she says, "because of its potential to get people further into undisturbed backcountry--the last refuge for reclusive species like the lynx and wolverine. Where a hiker can maybe get ten miles into the backcountry, a biker can get forty and an off-road vehicle one hundred. When you throw in skiing, the result is a year-round gridlock of recreation, which is a greater threat to our lands than logging ever was. Twenty years from now, forests harvested for timber will have grown back, but a trail will always be there.
"If this kind of proliferation continues, which it looks like it will when Laverty gets out here, I predict that we'll have uniform saturation [of Forest Service land] within two decades."
Laverty wouldn't call it "uniform saturation," but he does speak of big numbers.
"We estimate that by the year 2045 we'll have 1.2 billion recreational visits to our national forests," he says. "The question we have to address is, how do we prepare for that kind of use while making sure that the resource which draws these visitors is protected? We're going to find limits on what the land can sustain.
"I look at it like an opera house. There are only so many seats available, and when you exceed that, you've got to change the seating structure. Are we going to turn people away or build stadium seating?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.