Monday, April 28, 2008

Update on The Forest Service’s Natural Turnpike Project : Warren King reports

The Forest Service’s Natural Turnpike Project

An area of the Green Mountain National Forest in Ripton north and west of the Natural Turnpike is presently the subject of a management plan called the Natural Turnpike Project, calling for treatment of about 1200 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) acres in Ripton and South Lincoln. At the heart of the USFS interest in developing a plan for this area is concern about the safety of simultaneous wintertime use of the Natural Turnpike, or Forest Road (FR) 54, by vehicles, snowmobiles and cross-country skiers.

The USFS must follow a procedure prescribed by law for planning management activities. First comes a scoping letter, then a draft Environmental Assessment, and finally a Letter of Decision and a final Environmental Assessment, or, with regionally significant projects, an Environmental Impact Statement. In this case the project is relatively large but not regional; it has a number of objectives and parts, and the planning has taken 18 months. At each step in the planning process the public may provide its views. More than 100 Riptonites have done so at various stages. The actions spelled out in the plan will take place over 5-7 years.

The draft Environmental Assessment offers four alternative courses of action, one of which is, by law, a no-action alternative. Although the USFS indicated up front which was their preferred alternative, they strongly encouraged public participation at multiple hearings, workshops, open houses, meetings and site visits over the past year and a half.

Late in March they issued their Notice of Decision and final Environmental Assessment. Rather than selecting the preferred alternative of the draft Environmental Assessment, they chose a modified version of the alternative favored by most Riptonites. They chose to construct a new 1.9-mile trail parallel to FR 54 for snowmobiles and skiers. The alternative they initially favored but rejected in the final Environmental Assessment would have had a new permanent snowmobile and ski trail corridor running 2.1 miles from Spruce Lodge in South Lincoln over the Cobb Hill ridge and through mature, remote, unfragmented forest to join the Alphonse Quesnel snowmobile trail at Chip Stokes Road (FR 233).

Removing snowmobilers and skiers from FR 54 allows for safe winter vehicular access on FR 54 for one year-round resident and 8 seasonal camp owners by USFS permit on a case by case basis. Plowing and its costs would be borne by permit holders. Multiple use travel would continue on 0.3 miles of FR 54 from Spruce Lodge in South Lincoln to Eagles Nest Road and across a private inholding.

The selected alternative also calls for commercial timber harvest of 926 acres, rather than the 1219 acres proposed for treatment in the draft Environmental Assessment. An additional 231 acres will be treated noncommercially for timber stand improvement, aspen regeneration, and apple tree release to benefit wildlife. Early successional habitat amounting to 286 acres will be created through new permanent upland openings or through treatment of existing openings to enhance habitat diversity for wildlife like deer and chestnut-sided warblers that favor shrubby growth. Openings will be limited to 10 acres or less.

The decision takes into account the wishes of Riptonites to protect a swath of unfragmented forest, important for aesthetics and for production of migratory songbirds. The decision also takes into account the need to protect a threatened plant species that grows in several places along FR 54. The USFS’ encouragement of public participation and the choice of an alternative other than the preferred alternative indicates a willingness by the USFS to listen to and act on public opinion that is rare indeed these days.

Warren King

1 comment:

Joanna said...

Thank you, Warren, for explaining that so clearly. Although I received several phone book size information packets from the USFS about this project, I really didn't understand it very well!