The U.S. Forest Service recently released its much-anticipated draft revised forest plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Colorado’s Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison Nation Forests (GMUG), the largest forest unit in the entire Rocky Mountain Region. However, the plan prioritizes logging, which has local communities concerned.
“Unfortunately, the draft plan prioritizes logging over conservation,” stated Lauren McCain, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. “I appreciate the Forest Service has worked hard on this plan for several years, but it’s not too late to make a course correction that embraces America the Beautiful land and water protection and community engagement principles to conserve biodiversity and help tackle climate change.”
Despite broad-based local support for protective land designations, including recommended wilderness, that would restrict extractive logging and mining, the Forest Service significantly increased the amount of forest land that would be available for logging. The current plan is close to 40 years old, and it’s long past time for an update. If adopted, the revised plan will direct how the U.S. Forest Service manages natural resources, including wildlife, on the GMUG. This latest revision process presents a rare chance for these forests to help confront the extinction and climate crises by protecting lands high in biodiversity and carbon storage potential and adopting strong provisions to safeguard imperiled species. The plan revision provides the perfect vehicle to adopt place-based, community-supported conservation protections while helping the nation reach the goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030 (30x30), a priority of the Biden administration reflected in the “America the Beautiful” initiative.
Several members of the communities surrounding GMUG have expressed concerns about the plan as well.
"While the draft plan's increase in acreage dedicated to wildlife management is laudable, its lack of new wilderness recommendations and massive increase in lands suitable for timber harvest are concerning,” said Matt Reed, public lands director, High Country Conservation Advocates (Crested Butte). “Protection of diverse ecosystem types through wilderness and other designations is a cornerstone of regional, national, and international efforts to conserve biological diversity, ecological processes, and carbon strongholds to combat climate change. This plan can - and should - provide that pathway."
The GMUG national forests span 3.2 million acres and is home to a broad diversity of ecosystems and wildlife. This national forest also provides essential habitat for imperiled species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the Gunnison sage-grouse that depend on low elevation sagebrush, Canada lynx of the high-elevation spruce-fir forests, and the critically endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly that can only be found in high alpine areas.
While 19% of the GMUG is protected as wilderness and contributing to 30x30 goals, many of the forest’s ecosystems and high biodiversity areas remain unprotected by wilderness or other land designations.
"As a citizen who has been participating in GMUG forest planning efforts for more than two decades, I’ve been anticipating a draft plan that prioritizes resiliency to climate change and use of the best available science,” Joan May, San Miguel County resident. “A strong forest plan is tremendously important to protect the health of our natural resources while contributing to the vitality of the communities, residents, visitors, ecosystems and wildlife who rely on the forests. With so much at stake and with such a great opportunity to be proactive, I’d love to see this plan better reflect current knowledge and science to make our forests more resilient to climate change while anticipating ever increasing recreation use of our public lands."
County commissioners wrote the Forest Service a letter earlier this spring, voicing their concerns about too much allowable timber harvesting and insufficient climate analysis, among other issues.
As a result of escalating threats, including climate change and habitat destruction, one million species around the world may face extinction. Findings in a new report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that because of human-related activities, our climate has been pushed into “unprecedented territory.” We need an all-hands-on deck approach to meet today’s challenges. Working to achieve 30x30 as outlined in “America the Beautiful” is a key way the Forest Service can help.
"At first glance, this plan seems to be more reflective of extractive priorities rather than the conservation ideals that we need,” Ben Katz, Public Lands Program Director, Western Slope Conservation Center (Paonia). “I urge the Forest Service to provide a pathway to a more sustainable, and biologically diverse, future. Here in the North Fork Valley, upstream forest health is directly related to our community's economy and livelihood, which include our world-class farms, ranches, and vineyards, and I look forward to working with the agency to achieve a more sustainable roadmap for the GMUG."
Defenders of Wildlife plans to provide comments during the plan’s 90-day public review and comment period, which began on Aug. 13, 2021. The online comment tool can be found here.