Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon withdrew the draft record of decision for the Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, also known as LaVA, earlier this week following an administrative review.
The halting of the project followed a June 13 meeting between reviewing officer Jacque Buchanan and individuals and organizations who filed objections to the draft record of decision and the final environmental impact statement.
According to a news release, the Laramie Ranger District plans to clarify some areas of the project and address public concerns before issuing a new draft decision later this year.
“Our overall goal is to include citizens in the management of their national forests, clearly communicate the why and how of our management actions and resolve citizen concerns before the decision is finalized,” said Bacon.
Possible improvements include clarifying the role the public will play in development and implementation, refining the project’s Adaptive Implementation and Monitoring Plan and better aligning resource specialist reports with the final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision.
The aim of LaVA is to authorize flexible management of vegetation on the forest in a timely manner. Specifically, the project would allow for the removal and use of beetle-killed timber in order to maximize its value and reduce fire risk.
The decision would allow for treatments such as prescribed burns, tree thinning, hazard tree removal and tree harvest on up to 360,000 acres in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges during the next 15 years. The project is intended to benefit wildlife habitat, water supplies, road maintenance, views, recreation and public safety, according to the Forest Service.
“The need of this project is quite simply to respond to the changed forest condition on the landscape at the scale at which the landscape has changed,” Bacon said at last week’s meeting. The project has been in the works for the last several years, with the Forest Service developing the plan together with multiple local, state and federal agencies that also operate on or near the national forest, including Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming State Forestry Division, Laramie County Conservation District, City of Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities and several conservation districts.
The LaVA project was developed using a new planning strategy called condition-based NEPA analysis, in which the environmental analysis is conducted over a broad area instead of at each specific treatment site. NEPA analysis is required of federal agencies by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The aim of the condition-based analysis is to allow for flexible treatment within criteria established by the decision over a longer time frame. Districts can then identify projects that are ready to go and respond to changing conditions.
Potential treatment areas are limited by the Medicine Bow National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, which guides management in areas such as wilderness, roadless areas, big game habitat and areas of special interest.
The plan calls for vegetative treatments on 125,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas. Road construction isn’t authorized in those areas, but treatment with heavy equipment could occur within the roadless boundaries. Such treatment would require review from the regional office before implementation under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
Since its proposal in 2017, the project has been opposed by individuals and organizations concerned about the scale of the project, its call for 600 miles of temporary roads, potential impacts to inventoried roadless areas, a lack of site-specific detail and the lack of future environmental analysis, among other concerns.
Connie Wilbert with the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter said she was “very pleased” that the Forest Service was willing to withdraw the proposal.
“The truth is that this project had some very significant problems as it was developed, and it wasn’t clear to us that those problems could be easily resolved,” she said.
Wilbert said the forest-wide scale of the project elicited strong public engagement.
“People who live in Laramie like the Snowy Range and the Sierra Madres a lot, and they really care about what happens up there,” she said. “My hat is off to the residents who care enough to get involved and stay involved over two years.”
Shaleas Harrison with Wyoming Wilderness Association also said she was pleased the Forest Service was stepping back to take another look at public concerns.
“I think the biggest concern is the size and scope and lack of site-specific analysis,” she said.
Go to www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=51255 for complete project information.