Delta County Commissioners Doug Atchley, Mark Roeber and Don Suppes have submitted their assessment concerning wilderness in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.
The commissioners noted that Delta County currently encompasses wilderness and wilderness study areas.
In addition, a number of parcels fall under the Colorado Roadless Rule, a 2012 law that requires management to preserve their roadless character. The CRAs are entirely independent of the USFS GMUG Plan, the current wilderness planning process, or wilderness designation, the commissioners emphasize.
The CRAs also include "Upper Tier" areas which have a more restrictive management scheme than general CRAs, including a total prohibition on utility rights-of-way corridors for oil and gas activities or utilities.
The commissioners stated that all CRAs must continue to be managed under the 2012 rule, regardless of the outcome of the new GMUG planning process; therefore, areas that are currently being considered for wilderness which are already CRAs represent a less drastic management shift than areas under consideration that are not CRAs.
The commissioners urged that long-term implication of wilderness designation be carefully considered before moving to recommendation, stating, "When an area is designated as wilderness, flexibility and ability to manage are severely limited. The recent beetle kill infestation is a clear example where hard restrictions have limited the ability to proactively manage and/or treat. The unfortunate result has been a reduction in forest health both short- and long-term."
Other points requiring careful consideration include trail maintenance and water infrastructure for both domestic use and livestock allotments. Water maintenance projects in the current West Elk Wilderness provide the best on-the-ground example. Livestock watering is required to be primitive and the West Elk permittees have worked diligently with the Forest Service to accomplish this. Wilderness requirements make it very difficult to maintain water infrastructure or to address drought years.
Another concern is the water infrastructure for numerous irrigation and domestic water companies. The Forest Service has indicated it has specifically carved out areas where infrastructure exists; however, if any of these companies want to maintain, expand or add additional storage, they will be bumping up against proposed wilderness designation and thus the delay will begin.
Trail maintenance is another area of concern for the BoCC. There is a backlog of trail maintenance, and each year the growth and expansion of woody species further exacerbates the trail issue. Every season the maintenance of trails is delayed and hikers are unable to locate trails and safely maneuver through the wilderness areas.
For the West Elk Wilderness, chainsaws can be used for maintenance up until July 4; however, this exception is not included in enabling legislation for every area.
One hundred percent of the Mount Lamborn unit is already managed as an Upper Tier CRA, which is designed to conserve the roadless values of the area through restrictive management; therefore, wilderness designation would not drastically alter the management of this area.
The commissioners pointed out that designating the Beckwiths as wilderness would bring additional problems with the proximity of private land. The area is composed of aspen. Research indicates managing aspen aids in extending the life of groupings and the landscape. If the area is designated wilderness, flexibility will be reduced and the aspen may suffer. Previously mentioned concerns with water infrastructure with the Norris Ditch were included.
The remainder of the proposed areas for consideration for wilderness designation fall within the "moderate" category. The commissioners recommended that these parcels not move forward in evaluation, or recommendation for wilderness designation, due primarily to the irrigation and domestic water supply infrastructure in place and the need for adaptive management at the landscape level.
"Delta County Board of Commissioners is working with collaborative groups to address management concerns on certain surrounding existing wilderness. We believe that this approach allows for flexibility and adaptive management to be the foundation for how landscapes are managed for present and future generations," they stated.