Agency justifies support for expansion by saying lynx habitat is already degraded, but why make things worse?
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — With the Breckenridge Town Council set to take another crack at the Peak 6 expansion tonight, I pulled out my notes from the last meeting to review what White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams had to say about the project with regard to lynx, a species that’s still hovering on the brink of survival in Colorado. Even better, I was able to listen to his comments in an audio recording that’s embedded in this Summit Voice story. More discussion of Peak 6 is schedule at about 4 p.m. during the Aug. 9 council meeting. The agenda is online here.
I did this because I remember being annoyed at what I felt was a cavalier dismissal of the concern about the Peak 6 project’s impacts to lynx habitat, and I wanted to go back and make sure that it wasn’t just filtering what I heard through my own pro-lynx, pro-conservation bias.
Essentially, Fitzwilliams said that, regardless of whether the Peak 6 expansion proceeds or not, that particular lynx analysis unit (it’s called the Swan Mountain LAU) has been so degraded from a variety of factors — including pine beetle damage — that it’s only 50 percent functional as lynx habitat.
So why make it even worse by impacting an area that’s acknowledged to be some of the best remaining habitat within the degraded LAU? I guess we all know that Vail Resorts is driving this process, and that the Forest Service is merely the enabler, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.
Lynx analysis units are equivalent to an area that matches the size of a lynx home range; federal agencies use LAUs to to measure the scale of impacts of proposed projects with a common standard.
According to Fitzwilliams, the various biologists working on the expansion proposal have all said the same thing; that particular section of the White River National Forest does not meet the forest plan lynx standards for connectivity, therefore, the Forest Service has started a process to make an end run around the standard by amending the forest plan.
Fitzwilliams claims that’s a common procedure for the Forest Service, at least with regard to spotted owls in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he worked before starting his stint as the White River forest supervisor. He said the best thing the Forest Service can do for the lynx is to work with local communities and private landowners to improve the overall condition of the Swan Mountain lynx analysis unit in the next few decades.
The reality is that Fitzwilliams won’t be here for the next few decades, but the consequences of his decision on Peak 6 will affect those of us who remain for that time period and beyond.
It’s also a reality that, even though the habitat is degraded, there are lynx are currently using the area. Making the habitat even less functional than it already is almost certainly doesn’t meet the federal government’s mandate under the Endangered Species Act to take affirmative steps toward recovering listed species. It’s nice to say we’ll all work together to improve lynx habitat, but why start by approving an action that will make conditions even worse before there’s any sign whatsoever that there will be improvements.
Undermining forest plan standards established to protect lynx is just plain wrong, especially considering that the main reason lynx were listed in the first place was due to the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms in forest plans.
It would be one thing if we were talking about a critical water supply project, or a fuels treatment that was desperately needed to protect a neighborhood from wildfires. In that case, it might be justified to consider a forest plan amendment.
But we’re not. We’re talking about a small expansion at a huge ski area that is really designed to serve the rather short-term interests of a few very narrow special interests — skiers, the resort, and the corporate shareholders of Vail Resorts. Conservation of lynx is part of an effort to protect biodiversity on a global scale, something that’s in the long-term interest of every earthling.
Here’s why I struggle with this: Fitzwilliams clearly said that the draft environmental impact statement shows that the Peak 6 proposal will have a negative effect on lynx. The Endangered Species Act is pretty clear that the federal government is not supposed to do take any action that will do additional harm to a listed species. I can’t reconcile those two facts in my own mind, and I wonder how the Forest Service can justify it.
The agency has a legal mandate to help with recovering lynx that’s clearly outlined by the Endangered Species Act. Trying to sidestep that obligation with regulatory maneuvers reflects an abdication of moral and ethical responsibilities.
I’d be a little less harsh if this were an isolated incident, but it’s not. Since before the lynx was listed, the Forest Service has repeatedly demonstrated that its priorities lie elsewhere. That started with the Cat 3 expansion at Vail in the late 1990s, when Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists told the Forest Service that the forests on the back side of Vail represent some of the best lynx habitat in the state.
The agency went ahead and approved the project anyway, establishing some watered-down mitigation measures that were quickly forgotten. Because there’s very little followup monitoring, nobody has any idea if those mitigation measures actually did anything to improve conditions for lynx. How much do you want to bet the same thing would happen in the case of Peak 6, notwithstanding Fitzwilliams’ good intentions to improve overall lynx conditions in the area?
The pattern continues with nearly every other project on the forest, including fuel treatments, where the decisions most often include only the barest of nods toward lynx, and, most recently, the White River forest travel plan decision, when the supervisor basically ignored the biological opinion of the Fish and Wildlife Service that existing use at the Vail Pass recreation area constitutes an adverse effect on lynx.
Where are the pro-active steps to improve the viability of lynx on the White River National Forest?
At the last council meeting, Fitzwilliams said, “If the biologists had come to us and said, ‘this is a linchpin for lynx,’ we’d be having a different conversation.”
But the reality is, there is not one single linchpin for lynx, a wide-ranging species that needs, and uses, a lot of territory. If the White River Forest has its way, lynx will die a death by a thousand cuts, as various projects chip away at the overall viability of habitat.
We shouldn’t let that happen in our own backyard.