On November 5, 2009, something happened in Colorado that hasn’t happened in a long, long time: the U.S. Forest Service rejected a proposal to turn a natural area into ski runs and a magnet for private land development. The natural area is Snodgrass Mountain, which includes inventoried roadless lands, beautiful aspen stands, raptor habitat, and open space.
Snodgrass rises just north of Mount Crested Butte, the company town whose reason for being is the Crested Butte ski resort to the south. (The old mining-turned-tourist town of Crested Butte is a few miles further down the road.) The resort has had its eye on Snodgrass for years.
And for just as long, local conservationists have been trying to protect America’s public lands on Snodgrass from being turned into a site for clearcut runs and lift towers. Snodgrass is beloved as open space on the edge of development, as a place to hike, mountain bike and ride horses, and as wildlife habitat.
At the center of the battle is the Forest Service, which owns and manages the land, and has, for years, rarely seen a ski area expansion it couldn’t approve.
So it was a pleasant surprise when GMUG National Forest Supervisor Charlie Richmond said "thanks, but no thanks" to the resort’s expansion. Supervisor Richmond found the proposal to develop Snodgrass was not in the public interest, since it lacked community support, would spur development of ranchland, and would build lift towers and log in a roadless area and lynx habitat.
If the story ended there, it would have a happy ending. But it may not be over yet.
That’s because before the ink was dry on Supervisor Richmond’s courageous decision, development proponents sought out Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall, often a voice for environmental protection, for help. And they got some.
Senator Udall fired off a letter to Richmond’s boss on November 30 urging the Forest Service to "reconsider" the environmentally protective decision. Why? Udall claims he doesn’t have a position on the proposal, it’s just that the public (which has been debating the issue for years) should have been given an opportunity to comment on the ski resort’s proposal through the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA’s) process for evaluating proposed federal actions.
Let’s be clear. The NEPA process which IS critically important to shedding light on the environmental impacts and giving the public a voice in decisions. It’s rightly called "our basic national charter for protection of the environment." And where a federal agency is proposing to take some action, like moving forward with a permit application – something the Forest Service has NOT done with Snodgrass – it has a duty to undertake a rigorous analysis of environmental impacts, possible alternative actions, and give the public a chance to comment.
But is it really Senator Udall’s zeal to defend NEPA process that led him try to breathe new life into developing Snodgrass?
One could be excused for believing otherwise. After all, Senator Udall has not always stood on principle to defend the sanctity of NEPA process or public participation. In fact, he just introduced a bill to ‘streamline’ (read, undermine) NEPA analysis for projects to address beetle kill on national forests. The bill is based in part on previous legislation (the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act") that Udall supported, and that also undercut NEPA compliance and public oversight.
Maybe it has more to do with the fact that ski areas are big business, important to Colorado’s economy. – but, so, too, are open space, beauty and wildlife. When federal employees make a good decision to protect wildlife, ranchland and open space, they deserve a pat on the back from those who support environment.
It’s too bad Senator Udall didn’t see it that way.