The U.S. Forest Service, in collaboration with the National Forest Foundation, held the first informational webinar regarding Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG) Forest Revision Plan Tuesday morning. There are two more on Thursday. (Screenshot by Justin Criado/Telluride Daily Planet)

After releasing the most recent draft of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG) Forest Revision Plan, officials have been hosting virtual discussions this week, including the initial one Tuesday.

The U.S. Forest Service, in collaboration with the National Forest Foundation, held the two-hour informational webinar in going over the history of the revision process up until this point and explaining the current draft components.

The second and third webinars will be held today (Thursday) at 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., respectively. The a.m. session will focus on recreation, plan components, scenic integrity objectives, recreation opportunity spectrum, recreation emphasis corridors, wilderness, special management areas, and wild and scenic rivers.

“There’s a lot more to say about recreation,” forest planner Samantha Staley said Tuesday. She encouraged those with questions about the subject to tune into the morning session.

The Thursday afternoon session will cover wildlife, wildlife management areas, plan components for wildlife, species conservation concern list, lynx, suitable timber and timber production.

“This is a pretty critical point for your comments because you can really continue to influence what ends up in the final plan. Also, to have standing to object and again influence the final decision,” Staley said.

Since the process began, she added, there have been seven different comment periods, which have resulted in more than 10,000 comments so far.

“From the beginning, we held eight open houses, with more than 500 people during that assessment phase. When we started scoping, we had yet another round of comments to the working draft in 2019. We again held open public houses,” Staley said. “ … There’s been a lot of public involvement to build what we have today.”

In considering the management of the GMUG’s 3,161,900 acres of public lands, which are spread across several counties, Forest Service officials have worked closely with local organizations and governments, including the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners and Sheep Mountain Alliance.

“Counties have played a particularly important role. They continue to help co-host our open houses and events and really serve as crucial links to our communities,” Staley said.

There are five open houses throughout the GMUG’s ranger districts scheduled throughout September, including the Norwood Ranger District Sept. 22 from 5-7 p.m.

The current alternatives in the draft vary in several aspects, including timber production, special management areas and wildlife managements. Staley explained officials haven’t chosen an alternative to pursue, and she anticipates further changes to what they have now before the process is complete.

“When we launched this effort and we took scoping comments in 2018, we honed in on a few significant needs to change the plan and these topics helped guide us at the beginning. A primary reason was to better integrate recreation as a key role in contribution. Recreation had really taken off, and is continuing to increase kind of exponentially, and the forests have really changed quite a bit since 1983, when our old plan was published,” she said. “We also wanted to build a more accessible and useful plan that was more strategic and less prescriptive in nature. If any of you has used the old plan or looked at it, it was quite the sprawling, large, difficult-to-navigate plan with prescriptions that were repetitive between different areas. It was quite long. It was prescriptive and specific, which is difficult to then implement at a programmatic or landscape scale. Along with that, we wanted to simplify the management area framework. We had more than a dozen different categories with individual prescriptions.

“ … Another important one was try to manage for big game habitat connectivity even though there’s more and more pressure and desire for recreational trails.”

Commissioners of Gunnison, Hinsdale, Ouray and San Miguel counties submitted a letter July 16 regarding their concerns about the revised draft forest plan to the GMUG Planning Team.

Their concerns included a lack of sufficient climate change and socioeconomic analysis, and the plan’s outlined increase in timber production. Comments regarding the “adequate consideration of the designations in the CORE (Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy) Act” were “exclusively from Gunnison, San Miguel and Ouray counties,” according to the letter, as previously reported by the Daily Planet.

Staley said the CORE Act additional wildernesses are outlined and included in the current plan alternatives.

“We are trying to capture the functional direction from these special (management) areas, but it is a challenge for boil down those proposals into direction or management constraints that the agency can use,” she added.