Banner ADN 2-15-15

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

by Jeff Bear, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wilderness Workshop works to keep our wild lands wild

While the Wilderness Act of 1964 set aside 9.1 million acres of pristine lands including 70,000 acres in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” to some Roaring Fork Valley residents, it wasn’t enough.

Joy Caudill, Connie Harvey, and Dottie Fox, the “Maroon Belles” as they became known, created the Aspen Wilderness Workshop in 1967 to secure wilderness designation for the Hunter-Fryingpan and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Areas, and to increase the amount of acreage designated within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.

Their goals were accomplished with the passage of the Endangered American Wilderness Act in 1978, and the Colorado Wilderness Act in 1980 which together increased the size of the Maroon Bell/Snowmass Wilderness to 180,000 acres including Mount Sopris, Cathedral Lake and American Lake and also designated the Hunter-Fryingpan, Collegiate Peaks, Ragged Mountains and the West Elk wildernesses.

“It was [Caudill, Harvey and Fox’s] early work that is responsible for much of the wilderness we enjoy in this valley,” said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker. “Their first act was getting wilderness designated through the wilderness act, and then they shifted to ‘we’ve got wilderness, now we’ve got to come up with a management plan.’”

So the “Belles” worked with the Forest Service to come up with one of the first wilderness management plans in the nation for the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness which was focused on minimizing impact — in particular, addressing the access issue up Maroon Creek Road. In those days, people in their cars flooded the area and simply parked wherever it was convenient.

“They were involved in getting the bus system going in the early ‘80s,” Shoemaker said.

Monitoring changes

During the 1980s, Wilderness Workshop started a monitoring program in partnership with the Forest Service in which they monitored air and water quality, campsite impacts, and took inventory of noxious weeds.

Shoemaker said the early air and water quality monitors were mostly concerned with acid rain deposition in the wilderness areas.

“All the original wilderness areas have what’s called a Class 1 Airshed which is the purest designation — it’s considered a baseline condition, and by law is to receive no degradation of that air quality,” he said. “In the ‘80s there was a lot of concern about acid deposition.”

In the Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Shoemaker said acid rain was killing the alpine forest and sterilizing the lakes and waterways, which was a huge concern at the time because there wasn’t anything being done to mitigate it.

So Wilderness Workshop established a program that identified five alpine lakes that would be sampled three times each summer, and they have continued that program for 25 years.

“The threat of acid rain has diminished because they started putting scrubbers on smokestacks and changing over to cleaner energy sources,” Shoemaker said.

But one thing about longtime monitoring programs, Shoemaker said, is that “sometimes you set out for one objective, but you wind up getting information about something else.” So while staff were monitoring for the nitrates and sulfates they expected were being emitted from coal-burning smokestacks, they were still finding high levels of nitrates in the lakes, even with diminished input from power plant sources.

“We got the [U.S. Geological Survey] involved, and they determined that it was a climate signal — that because of the warming the snowpack was melting sooner, and we’re getting increased erosion of the bedrock around these lakes which is releasing more nitrogen into the water,” Shoemaker said.

Another area where Wilderness Workshop’s monitoring program has seen change, Shoemaker said, is in the proliferation of overnight camping.

“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a lot of backpacking use in wilderness areas, so there were lots of campsites,” he said. “They all got identified and tagged discretely with a little brass tag on a tree, and we go back every five years to see what the conditions of the sites are.”

Shoemaker said they’ve found that a lot of the sites started disappearing over time — there wasn’t as much backpacking and overnight use occurring — and some of the less-desirable campsites had gone back to nature.

“It’s indicative of the trend that we’re seeing that before these mountain communities started expanding, and people had to travel farther to experience wilderness, they spent multiple days there,” he said. “Now, we all live here and we can go out for day trips and still sleep in our beds … kind of indicative of our culture these days.”

But as the overnight use has declined, Shoemaker said they are seeing more impact at just the most attractive campsites, like Conundrum Hot Springs and Snowmass Lake. So now it is just the iconic attractions that are getting the high impacts, and Shoemaker said that is a shame.

“There’s lots of places to experience solitude beyond these heavily impacted areas,” he said.

Guiding the Forest Plan

Wilderness Workshop became the “go to” environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley during the 1980s, and Shoemaker joined the organization in 1997 to help lead the conservation community’s efforts around the revision of the White River National Forest management plan, which is done about every 15 years.

“The conservation community decided this was a great time to make the progressive changes you can make in the Forest Plan … so we put a lot of energy into that,” Shoemaker said. “We actually drafted our own alternative because we didn’t want to just have to accept what the agency created and respond to that.”

Wilderness Workshop based its alternative to the Forest Service’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on work they did while inventorying wilderness areas using staff and some part time volunteers.

“We went out on the landscape and combed it pretty well to figure out what the roadless area resource was, and that’s really important because that’s where secure habitat is,” Shoemaker said. “Where roads don’t go is where wildlife feels safer, and so from a conservation and ecological perspective those areas are where we focus a lot of our intention.”

The organization built a conservation alternative around identifying wildlife movement corridors that connect pieces of habitat together, and accommodating recreation that was compatible with that vision. The Forest Service accepted it, and it went into the EIS as one of the alternatives to the Forest Plan, which was a big coup for Wilderness Workshop because that had never been done before.

“The outcome of that was that we got 62,000 acres of new wilderness recommended in the Forest Plan,” Shoemaker said. “We also got a new way of looking at the landscape — this notion of core habitat areas connected to other habitat areas with movement corridors is founded in conservation biology … ”

The idea, he said, is to allow wildlife the room it needs to thrive and propagate itself into the future and allow evolution to continue — “so you get genetic diversity, you get genetic isolation and ultimately extinction.”

But although happy with the proposal, Wilderness Workshop thought it fell short of identifying everything that qualified as wilderness in the White River National Forest. So they created their own wilderness proposal that included all the land they thought deserved consideration as wilderness.

Wilderness Workshop was instrumental in achieving designation for the wilderness areas surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley including the Hunter-Frying Pan, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Holy Cross, Mt. Massive, Collegiate Peaks and Raggeds.

“That’s what we were campaigning for in the mid-part of the 2000s, and we took it to the community process to winnow that down based on other people’s perceptions for uses of those lands,” Shoemaker said. The proposal become known as the Hidden Gems.

“So that gets us to where we are today, we put a proposal together and take it through a community process and it’s reduced, and finally to a point where we’ve got county commissioner support through all the counties we’re working in, and then we forwarded that to our congressional delegation.”

That delegation included U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and Sen. Mark Udall who started their own processes to vet the proposal and get input from stakeholders to make sure it was robust and rigorous enough to pass Congress.

“Our proposal became a foundation for what they did, but they did a lot more,” Shoemaker said. “Sen. Udall said, ‘I want a bill that is broadly supported and has something in it for everybody, so everybody can say yes.’ So he started looking for alternative designations to accommodate mountain bike use, they weren’t wilderness, but had some level of conservation.”

Wilderness Workshop continues to work on the proposal with partners from Conservation Colorado and the Wilderness Society, and interacting with the congressional delegation that no longer includes Udall, but does include Sen. Michael Bennet.

“We’re asking Sen. Bennet’s office if they have the capacity to pick up some of the public lands work that Udall was working on,” Shoemaker said. “Right now we’re having conversations with them about what that might look like.”

Thompson Divide

When White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams announced the final EIS and draft Record of Decision for a plan to guide oil and gas leasing on the White River Forest for the next 15 to 20 years, it was considered a “huge win” for the Wilderness Workshop in their years-long fight to keep the Thompson Divide free from oil and gas drilling, Shoemaker said.

“If we pour a lot of energy into this process in terms of submitting technical details, rigorous scientific legally defensible comments, the EIS process, the NEPA process and organizing community support behind that we can effect change over a long period of time,” he said. “For us it’s about keeping wild places wild, keeping the quiet quiet, and keeping the air clean.”

The surface of our national forests is managed by the Forest Service, but in the West the surface rights are separated from the mineral rights on all public lands, and the Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing the subsurface minerals, Shoemaker said. So the Forest Service has control over the Thompson Divide and whether there will be leasing when it’s appropriate according to their priorities, and they tell the BLM what can be leased and what can’t be leased.

But while the Forest Service decision essentially makes the Thompson Divide unavailable for future leasing, it did not address 65 existing leases that Shoemaker said do not comply with the law.

“We’ve been raising the flag on that for quite a while and finally we got the BLM to respond and they said ‘OK, we’ll take a second look at those 65 leases and determine whether they are valid, they’re invalid, or some third path — some other way that they get modified over time,’” Shoemaker said. “So when the BLM started the NEPA process to look at these 65 leases, initially it was called the ‘Leasing Deficiency EIS.’” He noted that a deficient lease is an illegal lease — “It’s just a bureaucratic approach to describing it.”

“We won’t see decisions on that for another year and a half to two years,” he continued. “And you can bet the lawsuits will line up because there’s no way the BLM can put themselves in position where everybody’s happy. If they declare the leases legal, we’ll take them to court because we know they’re not, and if they void the leases, industry will take them to court because they don’t want to see that kind of precedent.”

The Thompson Divide didn’t always have a name. Shoemaker said that when the Wilderness Workshop first started sending staff and volunteers out to do wilderness area inventories, “it was just a bunch of different roadless areas in five different counties across two national forests. So it wasn’t ever considered a landscape as a whole, it was administered by all these different jurisdictions.”

But from an ecological perspective, it became apparent to Wilderness Workshop that it had tremendous wildlife habitat value.

“It’s a great deer habitat, some of the best black bear habitat in the state of Colorado … lynx have been using it for breeding and for movement, and the moose love it out there,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a landscape connector between Grand and Battlement Mesas and the main part of the Rocky Mountains here, and those pieces of habitat can’t get isolated or it will cause the [wildlife] populations to decline.”

Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan

Wilderness Workshop initially became involved in the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan because of a perceived disconnect between the rhetoric about management of that area and the science of forest ecology, particularly around the bark beetle, Shoemaker said. The point they wished to make was that while some areas of the state, like Summit County, have homogenous forests consisting mostly of lodgepole pines, Pitkin County forests are more diverse, and thus they are much less likely to support a bark beetle epidemic.

“We saw that rhetoric driving the management plan on Hunter-Smuggler, and we got involved to bring a broader perspective to it,” he said. “Also, a couple of our proposed wilderness areas were in the Hunter-Smuggler area, so we wanted to get involved to make sure that those values were considered.”

For its part, Wilderness Workshop brought connections to the academic/science community from CU and CSU to do baseline analyses for the project. They also have a seat at the table of the once-a-year meeting about what next year’s projects are going to be.

“We look at that together and build agreement around it,” Shoemaker said. “The project has morphed over time to a place where it’s in a good place and the community is behind it.”

Developing stewards for the land

Shoemaker said that when it comes to forest management there is a notion that somebody else is taking care of it. But in our current phase of shrinking government, that somebody else isn’t there.

“The White River National Forest’s operating budget has been cut in half, and more and more of the stewardships are relying on partnerships with local communities,” he said. “So it’s a matter of finding out what the needs are, educating people to understand that connection or the role they can play.”

Some people can develop a stewardship mentality, Shoemaker said. But many people need to visit a place in order to see it, feel it, and come to appreciate it, and then convert that appreciation into a feeling of responsibility and advocacy for that place.

“In our hike program we take people into some of these places that we think are worthy of greater conservation management and educate them about those places — what some of the threats are and the decision making processes that affect them,” he said.

Wilderness Workshop’s job, by Shoemaker’s consideration, is to argue for nature taking its course. That is one of the fundamental things that drives the organization, he said — to consider that nature’s wisdom is greater than human wisdom.

“By and large the landscape is going to be healthier with the lighter touch we have on it,” he said. “The less we intervene, the healthier the forest is going to be. History is rife with unintended consequences of human ecosystem manipulation. Our job is to help humans restrain themselves as they approach forest management.”

jeff@aspendailynews.com