By Courtney King

You can check out the GMUG’s forest planning website for more information, interactive web maps, and to join the GMUG plan mailing list. 

Additionally, folks interested in learning more about public lands planning and management can check out the Center for Public Lands’ website for upcoming opportunities to volunteer on federal lands, meet agency employees, and otherwise engage with local public lands and those who have dedicated their careers towards managing them. 

For individuals looking to get their hands dirty in the Gunnison area, there’s the upcoming National Public Lands Day on Saturday, Sept. 23 (more information at the bottom of this article).

On Aug. 30, 2023, the Grand Mesa, Gunnison, and Uncompahgre National Forests (GMUG) released “the draft record of decision for the revised land management plan and final environmental impact statement.”

That’s quite a mouthful that translates roughly to: After years of public comment and agency work that formally began back in 2017, the final forest plan for the GMUG is nearly complete.

The release of the plan kicks off a 60-day “objection filing” period, meaning the public has the opportunity to provide input, although doing so can seem challenging amidst so many new terms and processes. You may start reading and wonder, what do these terms even mean?

Indeed, federal documents often come with a heavy dose of acronyms, something government officials can’t seem to get away from. During a recent, public field trip for the Taylor Park Adaptive Management group, the group in attendance was reminded throughout the day to interrupt if they heard an acronym they didn’t understand, something that happened more than once. 

Resulting plans and documents like those just released stem from NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA has been called the “Magna Carta” of Federal environmental laws, setting forth policies and procedures to “assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions.” 

One of NEPA’s main impacts is to force large federally funded or administered projects to account for their prospective environmental impact — which often means drafting lengthy Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), which undergo public processes of their own.

Given the multiple types of documents and decisions involved, the term “NEPA” can tend to be used in an all-encompassing manner — e.g., “we had to reschedule an event because we didn’t have NEPA clearance,” or “we’re hiring a contractor to work on NEPA and write an EIS,” etc. 

The process is a lot to understand, with agencies staffing specialists, and universities like Western offering graduate-level courses for future land managers to (attempt to) understand NEPA.

Even a document titled “A Citizen’s Guide to NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard” comes in at over 35 pages long; it’s hard to make your voice heard if you don’t even understand what you’re reviewing, but let’s try to give a simpler (and shorter) explanation as it applies to the GMUG’s recent news release.  

The key point about NEPA to understand is that it sets in motion a series of actions related to decisions that could have large impacts on the environment. That includes the Forest Service’s land management plans, which are required by another piece of federal legislation: The National Forest Management Act (NFMA).

Getting a little tired of acronyms yet?

The NFMA requires the Forest Service to develop land management plans for all National Forests, including the three that encompass the GMUG. In doing so, the agency follows a process outlined in planning regulations often known as the “planning rule.”

And, by law, these plans must be revised no later than every 15 years, which is why the GMUG embarked on a Forest Plan revision process a number of years back — with the goal of revising the GMUG’s outdated plan, which dates back to the 1980s.

The GMUG forest revision timeline, which overlaps with the associated EIS process mandated by NEPA.

Diving deep into forest planning

From an outside (and perhaps also from an inside) perspective, it can seem that such plans are always being revised, as the process is certainly not a swift one.

Among other details, these plans must include the establishment of management areas and the activities intended to be carried out in those areas — which can include (but is not limited to): “motorized recreation, non-motorized recreation, ski areas, timber harvest, livestock grazing, mineral exploration and development, roads and trails, buildings, fire and fuels management, invasive species control, research activities, and protection of resources such as air, water, riparian areas, soils, wildlife habitat, species diversity, or cultural and historic resources.”

That’s already a lot, but it still doesn’t cover the full extent of what land management plans (the term is often used interchangeably with Forest Plans) can include. Furthermore, required by NEPA, the plan — like other large actions or sets of actions proposed by federal agencies — must be accompanied by its own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

According to the EPA, “a Federal agency must prepare an EIS if it is proposing a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” 

You can check out the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s database to search for statements from across the country and issued by different agencies, as well as read the EPA’s comments. The topics of EIS statements range from Forest Plan Revisions to Colorado Gray Wolf Rulemaking to internal agency decisions about equipping the U.S. Postal Service with a new fleet of electric vehicles.  

The EIS for the GMUG’s new Forest Plan was published on the federal register in August 2021, with public comments accepted until November 2021. Again, these plans take a significant amount of time, and the requirement of public comment periods serves as a partial explanation.

 According to the Citizen’s Guide, “The EIS process consists of four main stages, which are explained below: scoping with a public notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an EIS, the draft EIS and public comment period, the final EIS, and the record of decision (ROD).” 

Forest Plan Revisions go through a very similar process, with multiple opportunities for public comment and engagement.

Between 2017 and 2021, the GMUG conducted a total of eight formal public comment and informal public feedback periods, in total receiving and analyzing over 20,000 public comments, all of which are available online

Now, the draft ROD serves as the point where the regional forester has reviewed the plan, incorporated comments along the way, and put a stamp on the plan — with the opportunity for the public to again provide comment. 

Individuals had the opportunity to provide comments, but coalitions of environmental advocacy organizations or other bodies with vested interests also came together to provide comments as a group, like with the Community Conservation Proposal — developed by regional environmental advocacy groups, including Gunnison Valley’s own High Country Conservation Advocates. 

A logging truck carries timber harvested from Park Cone, as seen during a recent public field trip centered on the Taylor Park Vegetation Management Plan – yet another type of document the public has opportunity to engage with and provide feedback on. 

A final chance for public comment

“The GMUG planning team thanks you for your input and feedback leading up to this point. During formal and informal comment periods over the past six years, you have helped improve each iteration of the plan process by sharing your perspectives and concerns,” reads an agency statement accompanying the release of the revised plan.

Now, following the release of the draft ROD for the revised land management plan and the final EIS have been released, the public has until Oct. 30, 2023, to file their objections. 

Objections are different from public comments and must follow specific instructions, outlined by the U.S. Forest Service. As explained in a FAQ section of the GMUG’s Quick Guide to the Final Forest Plan, “only individuals and entities that submitted substantive formal comments during earlier comment periods are eligible to file an objection.”

Additionally, objection have to be related to the same concerns raised in previous comments by members of the public, unless the issue has newly arisen since the last comment period.

While different from a formal objection, the public does have the opportunity to attend open houses, with one taking place in Montrose at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6 at the Montrose County Events Center. Other public events, either virtual or in-person, may be added and posted to the GMUG’s website.

These open forums may be of interest to those that were unable to make comments previously, who are or were still lost in a sea of terminology — or in the 400+ pages of the Revised Land Management Plan, the 75+ page Draft Record of Decision, or other supplementary documents and maps associated with the GMUG planning process.

After Oct. 30, the Regional Forester will have 90 days to review all of the public Objections and issue a written response that may include additional direction for the Forest Supervisor to include in the final plan and a final record of decision.

After the final record of decision is published, the GMUG will embark on a new path forward after tens of thousands of public comments and many years of hard work. Until the next plan revision is initiated, the Forest Service will issue a monitoring report every two years.

And for those looking to get more involved in your public lands, there are other opportunities to provide input on Forest Service decision-making, even if it’s not through official comments and objections, and to do so more locally. 

For example, the Center for Public Lands convenes an Adaptive Management Group to amplify and formalize public engagement surrounding plans in Taylor Park. In fact, the interest or need for such a group to complement the Taylor Park Vegetation Management Project was identified during scoping for the Taylor Park Environmental Assessment, so stay tuned for more.

And for those looking to get a bit more hands-on, come out for National Public Lands Day on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 9 a.m. at the BLM Gunnison Field Office (2500 E New York Avenue).

Volunteers will be “decommissioning and seeding unauthorized roads through sagebrush habitat at Cabin Creek to restore and improve critical wildlife habitat,” and should plan to wear pants and long sleeves, along with bringing gloves, water, and a lunch.

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