Uncompahgre National Forest USFS plan hightlights

An entrance to the Uncompahgre National Forest. 

More than a year after starting the public input process, officials with the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison Forests released a draft document that would update the existing forest plan and guide resource management the next decade and beyond.

The forest plan addresses multiple values and considerations, such as recreation, grazing, water supplies, timber harvest opportunities and the federally threatened Gunnison sage-grouse.

“The planning team has been working steadily over the past year to build this working draft forest plan,” Deputy Forest Supervisor Chad Stewart said, in a provided statement.

“We want to build a shared understanding of what an integrated and strategic forest plan can be.”

The public can participate in webinars June 24 and 26, or attend a July 11 meeting in Montrose to learn more about the revised forest plan. Comments on the draft document are due by July 29. (See below for details.)

The forest plan does not authorize specific projects or uses, or obligate any action on the part of the United States Forest Service.

Although the landscapes the 3.2 million-acre GMUG encompasses are diverse, the surrounding communities have a shared vision for sustaining and balancing multiple uses, which in turn contribute to local economies, the draft document says.

Grazing, recreation, recreation-based tourism, sawmill operations and hunting are among the activities the forests help sustain.

The draft plan lays out detailed objectives for socio-economic components; ecological sustainability, including air quality and fire management; multiple uses, including cultural and historic, trails, energy and mineral resources, recreation and special uses; designated Wilderness areas and monitoring processes.

The draft document calls for identifying and implementing monitoring and fuels treatments to help make the landscape more resilient in the face of disease, beetle-kill and wildfire.

As well, goals within 10 years of the plan’s approval include riparian and meadow habitat restoration, through such methods as erosion control, and reintroducing beavers where appropriate and where the species is sustainable.

To tackle invasive species, the USFS would make a priority of treating new infestations early on, to eradicate them before they become entrenched.

Other sites would be treated annually until invasive species are eradicated. The USFS would also treat cheatgrass and sagebrush, “particularly Gunnison sage-grouse designated critical habitat.”

The GMUG also looks at forest health through the lens of wildfire. Fire can be used to the benefit of ecosystems, but fuel treatments are also a method of reducing wildfire risk at the outset.

Among the draft plan’s emphases are protection areas, as identified by the risk to human life, the wildland urban interface (where development borders forest lands), ski areas, communication sites, transmission lines, cultural sites or USFS infrastructure.

Under the plan’s big game section, critical winter range for bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, pronghorn and moose would be maintained and activities that displace the animals “should not be authorized” during breeding times and winter.

The plan also addresses the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The document’s provisions are designed to protect the bird’s habitat and food sources, as well as prevent habitat and breeding grounds disruption.

The draft lists as an objective closing off duplicative Forest Service routes, as well as illegal routes within 2 miles of active mating grounds (leks), within 10 years of plan approval.

Within five years of approval, the USFS would assess and identify places where fencing could be installed to reduce the potential for grouse being struck and killed.

Management guidance envisioned in the draft document includes possibly revising special use permit authorization during severe winters, applicable to activities within critical habitat.

In the event of severe winters, the USFS would reserve the right to restrict a permittee’s travel from identified areas and routes, consistent with the restrictions placed on the general public’s access.

Also to reduce stresses on the bird during severe winters, travel closures should be implemented near grouse concentration areas, the draft plan says. Criteria here include temperature and snow depth.

The draft document further proposes a seasonal closure for the Flattop Mountain area in the Gunnison Ranger District, which would prohibit motorized and mechanized travel between Dec. 1 – June 15 “if necessary to sustain the Gunnison safe-grouse population.”

The draft management document lists exceptions for permit holders, private property access, emergency maintenance, law enforcement and administrative use.

Other provisions in the draft plan pertain to protecting and maintaining sage-grouse habitat connectivity. Habitat interruption has been identified as a threat to the bird’s survival.

The full, 173-page draft management plan can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/gmugdraft.

The June 24 webinar is from 9 – 11 a.m. and again from 4 – 6 p.m. This covers an overview of the process and forest-wide direction.

The June 26 webinar is available at the same times. It covers management area direction and the monitoring program. Access it at 1-888-844-9904, participant code 8454465#, or at https://usfs.adobeconnect.com/gmug-1000/.

A recording of the webinars will be posted on the GMUG’s website June 27.

The Montrose open house, co-hosted by Montrose County government, is from 5 - 7 p.m. July 11, at the Montrose County Event Center, 1036 N. 7th St.

Submit feedback on the working draft online at http://fs.usda.gov/goto/gmug/forestplan_comments; by email at gmugforestplan@fs.fed.us; by fax, 970-874-6698, or by mail to Planning Team, 2250 South Main Street, Delta, CO 81416.

The planning team will use the feedback to inform the draft land management plan and help prepare the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which will include a range of reasonable alternatives. Individuals who provide feedback during this preview will not have standing to object to the draft decision before it is final, unless comments are submitted during the formal comment period. The formal comment period will begin with the publication of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is tentatively scheduled for the winter of 2020.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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