October 12, 2003
Squeezing multiple use
By Tim Fitzgerald, Western Colorado
A couple weeks ago I rode on the North Thompson cattle pool west of Carbondale. Not being familiar with the country, I paid special attention to it. The cattle range is national forest land. It is also dotted with gas wells. I saw a couple small timber sides, and it is a haven for recreationists of all stripes, from elk hunters to snowmobilers to hikers.
Multiple use was once the guiding principle behind public lands management. The idea was that many uses could be balanced across many acres. America was a place for all walks of life - cowboys and fishermen, loggers and miners, family vacationers and wildlife.
The Sopris District still offers a multiple-use feel. One enterprising miner has found rare deposit of dark marble on the south side of Mount Sopris. After painstakingly gaining Forest Service approval for his operation, he has been rewarded with a strike. The neighbors are up in arms that a mine will ruin the neighborhood, apparently forgetting what opened the country. The coal mines that gave Carbondale its name have closed, and their memory has faded quickly.
Similarly, after the dramatic Baylor Park blowdown in 1999, hundreds of acres of timber were flattened. Timber outfits moved in with bids to salvage the timber before insect infestation set in. Predictably, environmentalists, spearheaded by the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, sued and have blocked logging. Their goal is to block any timber activity, even a salvage operation.
These high-profile use conflicts highlight the sort of controversy public lands are known for. Traveling through the Thompson Creek country you can see a few places where livelihoods are made. Yet I saw no huge clearcuts, no overgrazed range, and no gas wells discharging into surface water. The scale was modest, and you get the feeling that people can live there without the benefit of a trust fund or comfortable retirement account. You will also find a lot of remote and wild country, which is one reason why some environmentalists would like to see the creation of a new wilderness area there.
The neighboring high country around Aspen where I spend most of the summer and fall is a stark contrast. Here recreation is king. The few active grazing permits are tucked away between popular hiking areas. There is no timber program, no active mining. The only controversy is whether to hike, bike, ski or run.
Multiple use is no longer in vogue. It is seen as a sellout to commodity interests. Commodity production industries like ranching, mining and logging have gotten a bad name over the years for their record on public land - probably deservedly. It takes only a few malfeasants to give an entire group a bad name. Commentators since Bernard DeVoto have sniped at the "Public Lands Giveaway."
The environmental movement has achieved a tremendous victory in the past 20 years. The juggernaut of multiple-use management has been stopped. Below-cost timber sales are becoming a thing of the past. Range management is being reformed by ranchers themselves in an attempt at self-preservation. Environmentalists have done a marvelous job of motivating the general population with the phrase "your public lands." Protect, save, preserve and enjoy.
Today public land managers try to balance commodity production with complex and sometimes nebulous issues like biodiversity and ecosystem health. Each year there are greater demands placed on public land. One of the fastest-growing demands is for recreation.
Recreation is an important part of all of our lives (particularly outfitters like me). It is also a critical part of Colorado's economy, especially on the Western Slope. The danger that Colorado's public lands will become solely a playground is quite real. Like the timber and grazing programs of the past, there is a large subsidy inherent in public land recreation. Holly Fretwell of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., found that federal agencies lose as much money on recreation as timber and grazing combined. People don't want to pay to play.
A place like Thompson Creek gives me hope that there is a middle ground where recreation can be balanced with responsible commodity production. It feels sustainable, whereas Aspen does not. Monoculture, especially a monoculture of recreation, is less stable than a diversified economic base.
Tim Fitzgerald spends the summer and fall caring for a high country cattle ranch and running Snowmass Falls Outfitters.