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.

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.

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."

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."

Snowmobiles are now allowed free reign over much of the forest outside of designated wilderness areas, which take up about a third of the land. Under the Forest Service's proposed plan, the non-wilderness area of the forest would be split roughly into thirds. Snowmobiles would be able to go wherever they wanted in one third, but they'd have to stay on designated trails in another; the final third would be off limits.

The intent is to limit motorized use to certain parts of the forest, and Wolf insists that's a mistake. "If you take all of the wintertime users and confine them to trails, you'll wind up with a large number of people concentrated in the same area," he says. "It's better to disperse the users, because there's less resource damage. If you let snowmobilers go wherever they want to go, you'll cause less damage."

Wolf also says that snowmobiles cause little harm to the forest compared to ATVs, which are used primarily in the summer. There are about 28,000 snowmobiles registered in Colorado. "In the summer, when the snow is gone and there are fragile areas, you obviously don't want people there," he says. "In the winter, when there's several feet of snow on the ground, it's pretty hard to damage something."

However, many people think that snowmobiles are highly stressful to wildlife, especially at a time of year that's difficult for animals. "They're looking for food and are cold, and it definitely stresses them," says Vera Smith, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club. "If snowmobiles stay on designated routes, the wildlife becomes habituated to them. When the snowmobiles wander, they have a considerable impact on wildlife."

Non-motorized users of the forest outnumber motorized users by an estimated 11 to 1 during the summer. (In the winter, those numbers are about 2.5 to 1.) Many people who hike, camp, hunt, fish, snowshoe or ski cross-country find off-road vehicles annoying and insist they're an offense to anyone who enters the forest seeking some peace and quiet. "We're disturbed at what we consider to be an unregulated proliferation of motors in the backcountry," says Smith. "We've seen a huge increase in this. Is our backcountry going to become a mini-highway system?"

Smith says the four-wheel ATVs are especially damaging, since they can blast through creeks, roar up mountain sides and tear up tundra without the cushion of snow that separates snowmobiles from the earth. The ATVs are also used to carve new, unauthorized roads into the forest, which can cause erosion and runoff problems. "Ecologically, the land can't take all this motorization. ATVs are growing rapidly and becoming really popular. They don't need to be on roads anymore -- the technology has developed to that point. The ads for them show people screaming through wetlands. That's not what these machines should be used for on our public lands."

Under Alternative D, ATVs would be allowed only on designated trails.

ATV enthusiasts say they've been unfairly targeted by the Forest Service. They agree that ATVs should have to stay on trails, but they want to be able to develop little-used roads that were cut into the forest for timber harvesting and natural-gas exploration into a network of looping trails for motorized vehicles. "Alternative D would preclude that from ever happening," says Randy Parsons of the White River Forest Alliance, which represents ATV owners. He adds that ATV drivers for the most part already stay on trails, although he acknowledges there are some who abuse the land, especially during hunting season. He believes ATVs have become a good scapegoat for the environmental movement. "They despise ATVs," he says. "But in terms of damage to the land, they do far less damage than a horse."

Following the uproar over the Forest Service's preferred plan, the deadline for public comment on the plan was extended to May 9. More than 12,000 people submitted comments to the Forest Service offices in Glenwood Springs. Regional Forester Lyle Laverty will have the final say, but he's not expected to make a decision until sometime early next year. (Further complicating the issue was President Clinton's recent proposal to prohibit new roads in 43 million acres of forest nationwide; that proposal could also have a dramatic impact on White River's future.)

Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Greg Walcher made his opposition to the Forest Service plan clear last fall. (Walcher is the former director of Club 20, a lobby for business interests on the Western Slope.) In comments submitted to the Forest Service in December, the CDNR withheld statements by state Division of Wildlife biologists who argued that Alternative D was the best plan for wildlife. Environmentalists later charged that Walcher had censored the comments of the state's own experts. Department spokeswoman Susan Wadhams denies the charge, saying, "It was not censorship, but a matter of coordination."

U.S. Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck is largely responsible for the agency's new emphasis on forest health and wildlife. After years of bitter warfare between environmentalists and the government over clear-cutting, road building, and protection of endangered species, Dombeck has embraced an agenda that emphasizes the health of watersheds and land. Taking his lead from President Clinton, he has clearly signaled to his employees that environmental concerns should have more weight in the decisions they make.

"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."

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."

She sees the McInnis plan as nothing but a big wet kiss to the ski industry and industrial users of the forest. "In terms of political clout, the ski industry has it," she says.

McInnis is well known in political circles for his fundraising abilities. Although few people outside his Western Slope district know much about him, there is widespread speculation that he will run for the Senate if Ben Nighthorse Campbell retires. McInnis has more than $1 million in the bank and has raised huge amounts of money from people connected to the ski industry or involved in high-country real estate.

More than a half-dozen Vail Resorts executives shelled out several thousand dollars in contributions to McInnis in 1999, even though it was not an election year, including Vail president Andrew Daly, who gave $1,000, and several of Daly's managers, who together chipped in another $2,500. Lawyers who work for Vail also gave it up. Norm Brownstein and Steven Denby of Brownstein Hyatt & Farber each gave $1,000, while five attorneys from another Denver firm, Otten Robinson Neff and Ragonetti, gave a total of $1,500. In addition, Copper Mountain Resort president Harry Mosgrove gave $500.

Real-estate interests make up a core group of financial backers for McInnis as well. Eight different officers for the Broe Companies -- which has been heavily involved in developing the Eagle Vail resort -- gave $1,000 each. And the congressman drew additional funding from several real estate lobbies, including an astonishing $10,000 from the national Realtors political-action committee in 1998. Other contributors involved in real estate include Larry Mizel ($1,000), East West Partners ($500), George Gillett ($1,000), Andy Wiesener ($1,000), Fuller & Company ($1,000), Brian Hamilton ($2,000), Gilbert Johnson ($500), Walt Koelbel ($1,000), William Murphy ($1,000), Michael Cooper ($1,000), Ron Pettigrew ($2,000), BUILD PAC ($2,500), Karyn Contino ($2,000), and the Mortgage Bankers PAC ($1,000).

In addition, McInnis collected $14,000 over the past two years from people involved in the mining industry.

Despite the financial backing, however, Josh Penry scoffs at the notion that McInnis's criticism of the Forest Service is motivated by campaign contributions. "Those allegations are false," he says. "That's a diversion the environmentalists came up with. It's a personal attack."

He also insists that it's misleading to claim that McInnis's plan would give the green light to major ski-area expansion. He notes that any such plans would still have to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and earn approval from the Forest Service. "The Forest Service has repeatedly turned down expansion requests in the last decade," he says. "The congressman doesn't believe skiing is inherently evil."

Environmentalists say the ski industry and real-estate interests are now pushing for major expansions so that they can sell more of the expensive "ski in/ski" out properties, not because there is more demand for skiing terrain.

In fact, the number of skiers hitting the slopes in Colorado has stagnated in recent years, but since companies like Vail Resorts are now publicly traded (the company's stock was trading at $16 per share last week, down from a high of $23 per share in September), the firms are under pressure from Wall Street to increase profits, and the sale of these lavish vacation homes and condos can pump up revenues even if lift-ticket sales prove disappointing.

"If you take a close look at the terrain the ski areas want for expansions, it's always near privately owned land they want to develop," says Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, an environmental group. "It's an abuse of public land for real-estate development and profiteering."

Skier visits at Vail declined from 1.6 million during the 1997-98 ski season to 1.3 million the next year. Figures released last week for the 1999-2000 season show Vail's skier visits at about 1.34 million, up about 2.5 percent. However, skier visits at both Beaver Creek and Keystone declined by 5 percent this year. Total figures on Colorado skier visits were down 4.5 percent this year, dropping below 11 million for the first time in ten years. In addition, Forest Service figures show that the number of skiable acres in the White River forest has grown by 77 percent since 1987. During the same period, the number of skier visits rose by just 24 percent.

Vail spokesman Paul Witt insists the drop in skier visits is a temporary phenomenon and says that while Keystone and Beaver Creek have seen fewer skiers, Vail and Breckenridge have had more. "Skier visits in the United States are growing, albeit slowly. We think the fundamentals of the ski industry remain very strong," he says. "People are looking at one or two years of data and projecting the death of the skiing industry. That's completely wrong."

Vail, however, was concerned enough to take out an insurance policy that protected the company's four resorts in the event of a decline in ticket sales -- and collected more than $10 million on that policy during the past season.

But Witt says Vail Resorts still needs to have the option to expand its ski areas in the future, and Alternative D would take that away. "We don't support the philosophy of Alternative D. It's too restrictive a management plan for public use of the forest. It could result in increased crowding on the slopes and higher lift-ticket prices."

With the notable exception of the Aspen Skiing Company resorts, every ski area in the White River forest is looking at major expansion. But Alternative D would limit this growth to areas that have already won approval, including those at Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Ski Sunlight. Nevertheless, most of the others have plans for huge new additions: Keystone is eyeing Independence Mountain, Arapahoe Basin covets Montezuma Bowl, Breckenridge wants to add two peaks, and Copper Mountain Resort is pulling a proposal to triple its size.

Much of this new ski terrain would be on prime wildlife habitat; private property with development potential is also adjacent to most of these sites. Beaver Creek, for instance, has been eyeing a possible expansion into McCoy Park, but Colorado Wild's Jeff Berman says this would destroy a prime wildlife area. "McCoy Park is very important elk habitat," he says. "There aren't many places left for elk in the Vail Valley. They need lower elevation sites in the winter. The elk and deer need the locations the ski areas want for private profiteering."

The only reasonable explanation for expansions like these in the face of declining lift-ticket sales is the real-estate bonanza that follows the opening of a new ski run, he adds. "It doesn't have anything to do with providing recreational opportunities to the American public."

Vail Resorts' annual report makes it clear that the company sees its future profits coming from outside the lift line. Non-lift-ticket sales now constitute 68 percent of the company's revenues, and Vail has added twelve hotels, ninety restaurants, over eighty retail stores and 2,000 condominiums to its portfolio; last year Vail Resorts had total revenues of $431 million. The company is also spending $26 million on real-estate development, building golf courses, conference centers, private clubs, retail stores and hotels. The annual report boasts that 15.2 percent of total revenues come from hotels -- a figure that's nearly doubled in just three years -- while restaurants owned by Vail brought in 14.5 percent of revenue and retail ventures brought in 18 percent.

Vail Resorts Development Company, the wholly owned subsidiary of Vail Resorts, coordinates much of the firm's real-estate investment. To minimize risk from residential real-estate ventures, the annual report notes that Vail often sells land to developers and takes a cut of the profits: "In many cases, [the company] contracts to sell development sites to third-party developers who undertake the construction and financial obligations of the residential units. Vail Resorts, in turn, receives an up-front cash payment for the land and a share in the developer's profit."

The report also describes the company's golf courses -- it owns four and has two more in the planning stages -- and details plans for Red Sky Ranch, a new golf community that will be built ten miles west of Beaver Creek.

Vail Resort's Witt acknowledges that the company is involved in real-estate development, but he says that makes up only about 10 percent of the firm's revenues. "Real estate is not a driving factor in our ski operations," he claims. "Obviously there's a relationship between the ski areas and real-estate development. We do both things. But to say expansion is being driven by real estate is a fallacy."

According to Witt, Vail's headlong rush into the hotel, restaurant and retail business doesn't count as real-estate development. "The restaurants are on-mountain restaurants, and the hotels are in base areas," he says. "We haven't built anything. We bought existing lodges."

In the last few years, the company has acquired the Breckenridge Hilton, the Lodge at Vail and the Village at Breckenridge. Last fall Vail announced an agreement with Ritz-Carlton to develop a hotel in Beaver Creek, and the company has also entered into a retail partnership with Specialty Sports Inc. to develop sporting-goods stores.

Critics of the ski industry scoff at the idea that Vail Resorts isn't pushing massive new real-estate ventures. "These people know exactly what their plans are for developing the private land," says Ted Zukoski of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "It's all about real estate and capturing the off-mountain dollar."

Another issue that's emerged in the controversy over the White River plan is water rights. The Forest Service has proposed requiring those who currently have permits to divert water from the forest to surrender 10 percent of their water claim as a condition of getting those permits renewed. Known as a "bypass flow," the idea is to make sure the creeks inside the forest don't dry up and aquatic life doesn't die off.

McInnis's reaction to this has been vitriolic. "Let me be clear: The Forest Service will not establish a national bypass flow precedent on the White River National Forest without a political fight from me and a likely legal challenge from Colorado water users," he wrote in his letter to the Forest Service. He and his allies claim that Colorado water law already assures a constant flow of water in forest streams and that the federal government has no authority over state waters. The hundreds of water lawyers based in Denver are proof of the volatility of water issues in the West, and legal wrangling over the Forest Service proposal could go on for years.

"Folks who don't like the Forest Service policy on in-stream flows are acting like this is a big water grab," says the Wilderness Society's Jones. "It's not. The Forest Service is just saying we need to have a stream here. It's as simple as this: Do you want your trout streams to have water in them?"

At the start of the twentieth century, Republicans were leading the charge to protect the West's forests.

Teddy Roosevelt established fourteen new national forest "reserves" in Colorado between 1902 and 1907. Under the leadership of legendary conservationist Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service managed the forests as a publicly owned resource. Ranchers had to apply for permits to graze cattle, lumber companies were required to get approval for cuts, and illegal fences were taken down. By the end of 1908, the government had placed 15.7 million acres of Colorado land in the forest system, but many Coloradans were outraged by the idea that a federal bureaucracy was telling them what to do.

In 1907, a Public Land Convention was held in Denver. Western politicians and others gathered to berate the federal government, Chief Forester Pinchot and Interior Secretary James Garfield.

"My home is in the Reserve, and I earn my bread with a little ten-horse power sawmill, running the saw myself," one high country resident wrote in a letter to Roosevelt. "If you wonder why I object to the Reserve, it is because I love liberty, hate red tape, and believe in progress. I like self government, but to be placed under a bureau and in a Reserve is too much like going back to the kind of government you impose upon your Indians."

In many ways, today's fight over the future of the White River forest is a similar one. The political fallout is every bit as fierce as it was a hundred years ago and once again involves a Western politician who is opposed to a changing federal policy, although this time it is the Democrats who are trying to preserve the forest.

Sloan Shoemaker, conservation director for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, believes many of the opponents of the Forest Service plan are clinging to the past, when Colorado was sparsely populated and it was easy to embrace the anything-goes ethos of the Wild West. "When there were fewer people the land could absorb the ramifications of people being able to do whatever they wanted to do," he says. "Now we know there are real limits we must operate within if we're going to keep the ecological system intact."

And even though most environmentalists are backing Alternative D, many of them are disappointed that it calls for only 43,000 acres of new wilderness areas. "Our inventory shows there are 300,000 acres of land available for wilderness in the forest," Shoemaker says. Most of the current wilderness in the White River forest is at high elevations and is frozen much of the year. Shoemaker says lower-elevation land that supports abundant plant and animal life needs wilderness protection to keep the forest whole. But since this is the same terrain coveted by ski areas, timber companies, and ATV drivers, trying to preserve it is a constant battle.

"Ecosystems can't just adapt to whatever the political winds are," he adds. "We're at a crossroads in history where we're playing God. We're deciding what will be consumed and what will stay wild."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >