Rep. McInnis criticizes federal administration at town meeting

Wilderness designation, land use top list of grievances

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After six town meetings Monday, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis' voice was failing, but his message was loud and clear voters must choose carefully in the November presidential election if they want to protect their multiple-use rights on state and federal land.

McInnis, R-Colo., stopped in Craig Tuesday for a public meeting to answer questions and help people better understand the federal issues that impact Moffat County.

"It is important for us to protect the age-old concept of multiple use in our ongoing battle," he said.

And it will be a battle.

McInnis believes strongly that President Bill Clinton will use his remaining time in office signing executive orders designating national monuments across the nation taking no input from residents, local elected officials or from congressional representatives. Clinton is acting on his own preferences, but it also being urged by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to seize lands to create monuments or increase the size of them, including the Colorado National Monument.

Babbitt recently toured Colorado, including Moffat County, and elected officials believe there are nearby areas he will recommend be turned into monuments.

According to Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos, the county has nearly $50 million in oil and gas reserves that could be lost in a wilderness designation.

Presidential orders can be restrictive when considering use and not responsive to the needs of people in the areas they impact, McInnis said, which is why voters need to elect a presidents whose environmental agenda doesn't lock out common sense and is more balanced than what has been done in the past.

Part of McInnis' attempt to preserve multiple use in Colorado is the proposal of an alternative White River Forest plan. He is trying to find a middle ground with people who believe the entire forest should be designated as wilderness, eliminating recreational opportunities.

His plan would, in part, eliminate proposed federal instream flow regulations, recommend targeted wilderness expansion, curb potential ski-area growth, aggressively manage wildlife habitat to protect the forest's biological diversity, yet continue to allow a variety of recreational opportunities in balance with protecting the environmental and biological integrity of the forest.

McInnis said the most grievous element of the preferred alternative is its instream flow regulations. Flying in the face of Colorado water law, the instream flow provisions would authorize the federal government to compel historic water diversions which run on or across the forest to relinquish water rights as a condition of permit renewal. McInnis said the proposed federal instream flow regulations run afoul of state water law and are unnecessary because the Colorado Water Conservation Board already protects instream flow levels.

McInnis' plan would require the Forest Service to go through the Colorado water rights process before the imposition of any instream flow requirements.

"I think the Forest Service would be well-advised to rethink its instream flow regulations, understanding that Colorado already applies these environmental safeguards," McInnis said. "Nothing ignites the ire of western Colorado like the federal government trying to tap into our water rights, which is precisely why we'll be insisting that the Forest Service drop this provision from its plan."

McInnis' plan would allow a variety of existing summer and winter recreational activities to continue, providing room for limited expansion to meet the projected demands of visitation trends.

Those activities, McInnis said in response to Craig resident Gail Zimmerman's question, would include snowmobile riding, both on trail and off trail.

"The National Snowmobiler's Association is very pleased with our plan," he said. "It protects their right to use it as snowmobilers."

McInnis' plan would limit ski area expansion at several resorts to the boundaries of existing permits. Narrowly prescribed growth would be left open to consideration at other resorts, though any expansion would be subject to compliance with the rigorous requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal environmental law and would additionally require the approval of the Forest Service and other affected agencies.

"Recreation on the White River National Forest plays an enormous role in our economy and in our quality of life," McInnis said. "We feel very good about the balance our plan achieves in protecting recreational access and preserving the biological health of this Forest."

In the same vein, Craig resident Dave Watson asked what could be done to prevent the federal government from making portions of the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests lynx habitat study areas, another move that would limit recreational use.

Again, McInnis said limiting these designations occurs only when the people have open-minded elected officials who will provide a balanced look at public land issues. President Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore aren't doing that, he said.

"You've got the federal government making your planning and zoning decisions for you. Not your local officials," McInnis said. "No one making the laws feels the pain like those who live in this area. We're doing what we can, but our hands are tied. It's not an easy battle with this administration."

McInnis was urged by those in attendance to continue the fight for water rights and against broad-stroke wilderness designations and he said he has no intentions of backing down.

"If I don't have a fight a day, I don't feel good," he said. "And as long as I feel good, I'll continue to fight."

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