The view from Lone Cone Peak, which lies as the western post peak of the San Juan Mountains within the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Lexi Tuddenham)

The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG) Forest Revision Plan, which commenced in 2017, remains in the works, but a finalized plan may unravel in the near future. The GMUG Forest Plan revision process aims to update the current 37-year-old forest plan and devise a one that sustainably manages the productivity, ecological integrity and long-term health of all 3,161,900 acres of GMUG's public land.

On July 16, a collaborative letter highlighting four major concerns regarding the revised draft forest plan was submitted to the GMUG Planning Team by the commissioners from Gunnison, Hinsdale, Ouray and San Miguel counties. The areas of concern include a lack of sufficient climate change analysis and socioeconomic analysis, and the significant increase in timber production. Comments regarding the “adequate consideration of the designations in the CORE Act” were “exclusively from Gunnison, San Miguel and Ouray counties,” according to the letter.

A goal of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act is to protect over 400,000 acres of state public lands. The act has designated a multitude of wilderness, special management and mineral withdrawal designations within the GMUG.

“The complexities involved in the planning process to accommodate public needs, natural resources and a rapidly changing climate, make the process incredibly challenging,” the letter said. “We are concerned that this pre-Draft and preferred Alternative B do not adequately recognize these complexities.”

The letter added that all four counties are “ready to continue our active collaboration” with the GMUG Planning Team to devise a forest plan that all GMUG counties can support.

The letter covered each concern in detail. The first section details the need for a section to be added to study the three forest's current carbon sequestration capacity. Carbon sequestration is the removal of atmospheric carbon by way of trees, grasses and other plants uptaking the carbon in biomass. According to the letter, certain land management practices will work best to increase GMUG’s specific net carbon storage capacity.

“With more opportunities on our surrounding federal land for mitigation through healthy ecosystem service benefits, including carbon sequestration capacity, we are becoming more dependent on the management of federal lands,” according to the letter. “As we face what we now know as a more permanent drought condition in the southwest, a desired condition of all management decisions must be to adequately analyze the current capacity for natural water storage of a landscape and the proposed projects’ ability to improve that natural capacity over time.”

The second point proposes that a more comprehensive socioeconomic analysis must be conducted. The current draft plan, according to the letter, primarily focuses on timber production, which is a “single industry at the expense of all other uses and economic benefits that the forest provides.” The letter proposes that the analysis should include recreation and ecosystem services as these services annually generate $392 million for GMUG. Building on this, the letter’s third point discusses the concerns over the “substantial increase of suitable timber proposed,” according to the letter. The letter asks to prioritize wildfire mitigation “that protects communities and critical infrastructure.”

The final section asks to include GMUG’s specific wilderness and special management designations included in the CORE Act. These designations are a result of over 10 years of collaboration and “must be included in the Preferred Alternative,” according to the letter.

This plan was intended to be submitted prior to the opening of public comment, so the planning team had the chance to review their concerns.

Kimberlee Phillips, GMUG public affairs officer, explained that the GMUG team will publish its latest draft of the revised forest plan “as early as Friday, Aug. 13.” After the most recent draft is publicized, there will be a 90-day comment period in which the public can inform the GMUG team of present concerns, Phillips added.

San Miguel County has a “cooperative agency agreement” with the U.S. Forest Service, allowing them to be part of the planning process, according to Starr Jamison, the county’s natural resources and special projects director. He added that “all information they have provided” is confidential and cannot be discussed outside of public meetings “due to the sunshine laws.

“We discussed today an executive session on next Wednesday’s agenda; at this time, we do not have a board position which we can share,” Jamison said. “Once the Draft Plan and DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) is released to the public, there will be numerous public meetings with the USFS and County attendance.”

Local governments, town governments, environmental and recreational nonprofits, and local businesses are all considered stakeholders in the GMUG Forest Plan, according to Sheep Mountain Alliance Community Outreach Coordinator Mason Osgood.

“I am super happy with this collaborative response to the draft EIS (environmental impact statement). This letter specifically outlined many of the concerns that we have all shared in this multi-year process,” Osgood said. “Highlighting the importance of the CORE Act, and the need for a better socioeconomic analysis of recreation management are both areas that we are specifically focused on. This collaborative letter is a great way to show the GMUG Forest Service how important these issues are to these counties.”

Osgood added that Mountain Sheep Alliance has “worked extensively” with the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners and former county employee Lynn Padgett, who is now a Ouray commissioner. Sheep Mountain Alliance communicates their concerns to the San Miguel commissioners in the hopes that the points are included in the board’s comments to the GMUG Forest Plan planning team.

The environmental nonprofit advocacy group has also worked with other environmental nonprofits to provide “in-depth input” on wildlife protection, conservation and public land protection within the Telluride region, according to Osgood. Throughout the multi-year revision process, Sheep Mountain Alliance has expressed concerns on various elements in the draft plan, Osgood said.