The Draft Management plan that would cover publicly owned lands stretching south from Red Mountain and Lizard Head passes (as far east as Rio Grande and Canejos counties) and west to the Utah state line currently has four alternatives in an effort to balance acceptable parameters for both commercial and recreational uses.
Of the four alternatives, Alternative B, praised as a balance between extractive uses of the land and the preservation of large, contiguous blocks of undeveloped lands by the Public Lands Center, is preferred.
Alternative C places a greater emphasis on the preservation of the undeveloped nature of the San Juan Mountains and the Colorado Plateau, while Alternative D puts its primary emphasis on the use of public lands as working forest and rangelands, suitable for commercial and industrial use. (Alternative A, or the No-Action Alternative, is the
continuation of present management under the existing BLM and USFS land management plans.)
One of the big changes proposed by Alternative B is the protection of a portion of the Hermosa-Hesperus Peak Roadless Area, the largest roadless area in Colorado at 148,000 acres. Alternative B proposes wilderness designation for 50,895 acres in the Hermosa area. Alternative B also calls for a 2,600-acre addition to the Lizard Head Wilderness and a 2,000-acre addition to the Weminuche.
The San Juan Citizens’ Alliance calls the wilderness plan “skimpy,” citing its scant 55,533 acres of proposed wilderness out of 558,000 acres of inventoried roadless area.
“We think the plan is pretty timid in terms of wilderness designations,” said Jimbo Buickerood of the SJCA. “The good news is that they’re recommending it at all, but we feel it can be enlarged. That’s a central concern of ours.” Buickerood said that the Hermosa wilderness could be three times the size that has been proposed. He also said that other areas, such as the Grizzly Peak-Ice Lake Basin area near Sheep Mountain, should be recommended for wilderness protection.
“Their idea is to have the area south of Sheep Mountain near Grizzly Peak as a Resource Natural Area, so they do think highly of it,” he said. “But it would be great if it were part of the wilderness.”
“They’ve called these areas capable of wilderness, but they haven’t recommended them as wilderness,” said Hilary White of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “If Congressman Salazar does present a wilderness bill that includes parts of San Miguel and Ouray counties, we’d ask that the San Juan National Forest reassess their wilderness recommendations, especially with respect to the Sheep Mountain and Lizard Head areas.”
Mountain bikers, on the other hand, are less happy with the plans for wilderness in the Hermosa Peak area, as wilderness designation would prohibit mountain biking on five miles of the Colorado Trail through that area.
“The Hermosa has a range of elevations, a range of ecosystems,” said Shannon Manfredi, team leader for the plan revision process. “It’s a little different than what we have in other nearby wilderness areas. But mountain bike access has probably been the hottest topic since the draft has been released.” Manfredi said that at a meeting in Durango on Jan. 23, she anticipated 80 people would show up. Instead, 210 people came, two-thirds of whom she estimated were mountain bikers.
Another point of contention with the draft plan for both environmentalists as well as Rico-area residents is the lack of regulations that address mining.
“One weakness of the plan is that there’s a lot of talk about oil and gas drilling, but not a lot of emphasis on mining,” said Rico Town Planner Jennifer Stark. “Entities like Crested Butte, Rico and Silverton are seeing an increased interest in unpatented mining claims.”
Stark said that land managers cite the Mining Law of 1872 as the governing document for mining, “but the 1872 Mining Act is archaic at best. We don’t have time to wait for the mining act to be revamped. These mining claims need some sort of review when they sit near a municipality or in a watershed or in a resource natural area. If there isn’t something for land managers to work off of in their own Forest Service Management Plan, then it’s a huge hole that puts public land management at risk.”
Matt Janowiak, assistant manager for physical resources at the San Juan Public Lands Center, said that the draft management plan does address what are known as “locatable” (as opposed to “liquid”) minerals through management themes, such as wilderness, that are applied to different areas.
“If there are resource values out there that we feel trump locatable minerals, values such as wilderness or Wild and Scenic Rivers designation, then the mining law does not trump the management plan,” Janowiak explained. “However on large tracts of land, we have to manage them with the idea that the Mining Law of 1872 is in effect. For us to countermand that law, we simply can’t do that. We are not writing laws when we put that plan together. We have to comply with myriad regulations out there.”
Janowiak said that any proposed mine must first go through a lengthy permitting process that includes review of reclamation plans and the plan of operations by numerous staff, from biologists to wildlife ecologists to hydrologists and archeologists, depending on which resources may be impacted by the proposed mine.
The draft plan does call for the designation of a half dozen new stretches of Wild and Scenic River, including the Animas from Silverton to Baker’s Bridge plus the forks of Mineral Creek, all of the Hermosa Watershed, the Los Pinos (part of the Weminuche Wilderness), the Piedra River above Highway 160, the West Fork of the San Juan, and the Dolores River canyon below McPhee Reservoir.
According to the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, the proposed plan would protect the lower Dolores River from surface-occupancy drilling, from uranium mining, and from motorized use. The Dolores River watershed has recently been the site of rampant uranium speculation, with 2,190 new uranium mining claims within five miles of the Dolores since 2003. Wild and Scenic designation would create a half-mile-wide protected corridor along the river.
Another hot topic that the plan addresses is motorized versus quiet use on Red Mountain Pass. Alternative B would recommend the east side of Red Mountain Pass to be off-limits to snowmobiles, while the west side would remain open to motorized over-snow use.
For the past year, skiers and snowmobilers have been engaged in negotiations with the forest service over user conflicts in the area.
“We are concerned that the area currently marked ‘unsuitable for winter motorized’ in the preferred alternative is the area currently used extensively by winter motorized [users],” said Janelle Kukuk, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association. “This obviously will create further conflict if the final looks very much like the preferred alternative.” The designation “does not mean immediate closure to motorized use,” Kukuk said. “There are more processes to wade through, before any restriction and/or closure are part of the travel management, after the final plan is released. Consequently until those processes are finished conflict is bound to arise.”
The skier-based Red Mountain Pass chapter of the Backcountry Snowsports Alliance was not prepared to comment on the draft plan. However,White of the SMA said, “Sheep Mountain Alliance is a quiet-use advocate for public lands. While we respect the fact that all public users should have access, we highly encourage land planners to reserve significant areas for quiet use, not just for the benefit of humans but for the benefit of the whole wildlife system that’s in these areas as well.”
While the finalized Public Lands Management Plan may make recommendations for management of an area such as Wilderness or Wild and Scenic, official designations are subject to further implementation. Congress must designate lands as “Wilderness” or rivers as “Wild and Scenic.”
The San Juan Public Lands Center is accepting public comment on its DLMP and DEIS until March 12. More information can be found online at http://ocs.fortlewis.edu/forestplan/. The Public Lands Center is also holding several meetings throughout the region to explain the plan and to accept comments. See sidebar for details.