Superlatives characterize Colorado's White River National Forest.
It has Aspen, the nation's most expensive ski area; Breckenridge, its busiest; and Vail, its largest. It has the largest US elk herd. Ten peaks top 14,000 feet.
And in recent months, the White River has had one of the nation's fiercest debates about public lands. But neither logging nor grazing holds center stage this time. Unlike past Western controversies, this noisy spat is about recreation.
As big as it is - roughly the size of Delaware - the White River National Forest is too small to absorb continued growth of recreation, says the US Forest Service. So it has proposed a plan to draw the line on recreational use, which has doubled since the mid-1980s and promises to grow even more. The US Senate heard testimony on the plan last week.
How this controversy gets settled will reverberate beyond Colorado. As one of the most widely used public forests in the United States, White River has become a national trendsetter. In turn, users from skiers to mountain bikers have bristled at restrictions, worried that such policies will impede recreation throughout the West.
Indeed, some critics say Colorado remains plenty wild. "Is our forest irreparably damaged or becoming so?" asks Randy Parsons, who heads a motorized coalition called the White River Forest Alliance. "Elk herds roam in record numbers, bears are everywhere, mountain lions stalk, coyotes howl," he says.
Population growth has been a pivotal factor. White River is a prototypical New West forest. Miners, loggers, and ranchers have nearly all left, replaced by tourism entrepreneurs and telecommuters.
Adjoining communities during the past 20 years have tripled, in large part because of their proximity to federal lands. Some of the nation's most expensive second homes have fueled this growth. New franchise stores and other amenities make these economically boisterous mountain towns more like home.
Metropolitan Denver's 2.3 million residents, projected to hit 3 million within 20 years, also flock to the White River, clogging Interstate 70 with bumper-to-bumper congestion on weekends.
Whether for business or play, all the national forest is a park. Snowmobile registrations during the '90s in Colorado shot up 70 percent. Too small to count when the last forest plan was issued in 1985, mountain-bike use has grown 214 percent. From snowshoes to all-terrain vehicles, there are ever-easier ways to get into the forest.
That access has a price, though, say wildlife biologists. Aside from congressionally designated wilderness areas, most of the land is within a few miles of a road. Elk, deer, and other species need more unfragmented habitat, they say.
Proponents of biological diversity have used the Endangered Species Act and other laws to push the Forest Service toward protection of habitat for declining and disappearing species.
But protecting habitat, whether for elk or for Canada lynx, usually stifles somebody's pet recreation. Mountain biker Dawes Wilson resents plans that would force him to stay on designated trails, instead of making his own. "If wildlife is the big concern, which it seems to be, then it seems wrong to leave no restrictions on pedestrian travel," he says.
The Forest Service proposes to restrict the expansion of ski areas, which would lead to higher prices and greater crowding on the slopes. Environmental activists laud that move. They charge that expansions have become disguised amenities for high-priced real estate developments fostered by Wall Street-traded companies. Ski operators, on the other hand, demand latitude in accommodating growth.
Recreation has been building as a pivotal issue in the West for the past decade. Ed Marston, publisher of High Country News, a Paonia, Colo.-based newspaper that follows Western environmental concerns, traces the issue to population inflow that began about 1990.
"Until relatively recently, we saw recreation as benign, or even a helpful counterweight to mining, logging, and grazing. Then suddenly, seemingly it emerged as this monster," he says.
"If you use the analogy of the frog in the warming water, all of a sudden the water is boiling," agrees Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society. No group, not even hikers, can be excused, she says. "The idea that we need to put limits on things we used to think as benign - we need to accept that and get on with the business."
A new "mountain recreation ethic" is needed, says Terry Minger of the Denver-based Center for Resource Management. This ethic is something neither federal agencies nor state governors can foster. The congressionally mandated process inevitably creates groups who lose, he says. The public discussion must necessarily focus on desired outcomes and shared values.
The White River case has Dan Kemmis, former mayor of liberal-leaning Missoula, Mont., talking about the need for discarding the conventional federal management of public lands. Sounding strangely like sagebrush rebels of 20 years ago, he argues for more state and local management of public lands.
Still unclear is where the Forest Service will find the money to close roads and otherwise enforce restrictions. Congressional funding still hasn't embraced the idea of the Forest Service as a recreation agency, and user fees remain experimental.
Recreation hasn't completely superseded grazing, mining, and timber sales as battle topics across the West, say conservationists. "There are many, many parts of the West where recreation just isn't an enormous impact," says Bruce Hamilton, national conservation director for the Sierra Club. "There are still places where you can walk for days and not see another soul."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society