Today, the U.S. Forest Service released its final revised land management plan for the Rio Grande National Forest, located in south-central Colorado. Hundreds of local community members and citizens throughout the country had urged the Forest Service to include strong safeguards for wildlife and habitat, special designations to protect wildlife corridors, and recommendations for wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers.
Yet the plan fails to provide protections for the forest’s natural values from threats such as logging and roads and is likely violating some environmental laws. At stake on the forest is the recovery of the Canada lynx and Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, both protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the persistence of other imperiled species including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otter and western bumblebee.
“The Rio Grande is so far the worst of the worst management plans for at-risk wildlife and ecosystems to be revised by the Trump administration under the 2012 U.S. Forest Service planning regulation,” said Lauren McCain, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “The plan contains nearly no protections for some of the forest’s most vulnerable species. The amount of logging the plan allows in Canada lynx habitat would be very harmful for a species that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the Southern Rockies just 20 years ago.”
“The plan essentially gives the U.S. Forest Service carte blanche to implement projects and activities in sensitive wildlife habitat,” said Rocky Smith, an independent consultant who has been monitoring national forest management for 40 years. “It simply fails to include standards to protect the forest’s natural resources.”
The Trump administration chose to emphasize logging and roadbuilding over conservation in America’s national forests, and the flawed Rio Grande plan is representative of this administration’s strategy to flout the requirements of the Forest Service’s rule—the “2012 Planning Rule”—that governs the development and revision of national forest and grassland management plans. The rule mandates that plans include enforceable standards to help recover species listed under the Endangered Species Act, facilitate wildlife habitat connectivity, adapt to climate change, and restore riparian and aquatic ecosystems.
“The 2012 planning rule provided the U.S. Forest Service with an opportunity to develop a cutting-edge forest plan,” said John Mellgren, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Instead, it has doubled down on ignoring science, the law, and sound public policy in a move that will only jeopardize the health and sustainable enjoyment of the Forest long into the future.”
Recent scientific research has found that habitat fragmentation is one of the most pernicious threats to species that need large areas to move and migrate. The planning rule requires restoring and maintaining habitat connectivity, but the Rio Grande plan falls short here as well.
“The Rio Grande National Forest hosts some of the most important wildlife corridors in the San Juan Mountains,” said Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango. “Unfortunately, the forest plan refused to improve protection for these corridors, including those that cross the state line into New Mexico and the critical lynx linkage corridor that crosses Wolf Creek Pass.”
“The Rio Grande National Forest includes dozens of important, free-flowing streams, forming the headwaters of the threatened Rio Grande system,” said Mike Fiebig, director of the Southwest River Protection Program at American Rivers. “The Southwest is predicted to receive 20-30% less water by 2050, yet the Forest is refusing to evaluate all steams as required by law, while removing protections from five Wild and Scenic eligible streams.”
“The U.S. Forest Service had the opportunity and obligation to achieve a sustainable roads system. It failed to do so. Under this plan, the forest’s 2,242 miles of roads will continue to harm fish and wildlife habitat, choke streams with sediment, and hinder wildlife movement,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding advocate at WildEarth Guardians.
“The Rio Grande National Forest ignored its obligation to protect public interest, environmental health and future generations. Their version of “adaptive management” is crisis management, leaving the forest landscape and species within to fend for themselves,” said Christine Canaly, director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.
Many local and national conservation organizations have participated in the Rio Grande planning process since it began in 2014. They provided recommendations throughout the process, but were largely ignored by the Forest Service. These groups will be closely monitoring how the Rio Grande implements its plan. Some are considering litigation over legal violations in the final plan.
The Rio Grande National Forest is a 1.8 million-acre gem in the middle of southern Colorado, including the headwaters of its namesake river. Though it has a history of abusive industrial logging, the forest boasts a diversity of ecosystems from lower elevation sagebrush and grasslands to the dominant high-elevation spruce-fir forest and fragile alpine areas.
The Rio Grande is the most important national forest in the Southern Rockies for the Canada lynx, protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, a critically endangered species, depends on the Forest for its recovery. The management plan provides the blueprint for how the forest will balance uses, such as logging and recreation, with wildlife and ecosystem conservation for at least 15 years and probably many more.