SW Community Forestry Caucus

Monroe Mountain Ecosystem Restoration Project—A Case Study


By Brian Cottam
The Monroe Mountain Ecosystem Restoration Project (MMERP) is located on Monroe Mountain on the Fishlake National Forest, Richfield Ranger District. Part of central Utah’s high plateau backbone, Monroe Mountain rises above the alfalfa-sowed valley floors to be seen from miles in every direction. The approximately 50,000 acre project area, ranging in elevation from 8,800 feet on the western boundary to just over 11,000 feet at the north end’s Monument Peak, overlooks rural Sevier and Piute Counties in south-central Utah.

MMERP was a result of a 1995 Forest Service area analysis documenting that the mountain’s ecosystems were not in a desirable condition as described in the Fishlake Forest Plan. In 1997, the Fishlake began planning for Monroe Mountain, identified by the Forest as a priority area for ecosystem restoration. Specific objectives for the project include aspen and grassland ecosystem abundance restoration (vast tracts of aspen forest—now rapidly diminishing—have been a defining component of Monroe’s varied ecosystems); improve watershed and riparian conditions (numerous waterways provide for the small communities surrounding the entire plateau); reduce wildfire, insect and disease risk (the major portion of the 1,330 acre Oldroyd Fire in July 2000 was within the boundaries of MMERP treatment areas, while epidemic outbreaks of spruce beetle are a growing threat to the Forest), and provide work and wood products for local communities and businesses. This last objective was a direct result of MMERP being selected as one of the original 28 pilot projects for new stewardship contracting authorities.

The project team, under the leadership of Don Okerlund, has taken their responsibility for public involvement within the stewardship contracting process seriously. Beginning in 1997 and continuing through today several field tours and public meetings have been provided. These gatherings have been beneficial in helping local communities and potential project partners better understand stewardship contracting, the differences from traditional contract methods, and how the new authorities will be utilized in this project.
With public outreach and participation well underway, the Forest issued the Notice of Intent to prepare an EIS in early 1999. The Draft EIS was released in September 1999 with the Final EIS coming in June 2000. Numerous changes, particularly in regards to the ultimate size of the treatment areas (thinning and sagebrush treatments specifically), were made during this time due to public input and the uncertainty of inventoried roadless areas found throughout the project area. Public participation from local interests remained active, though, even as the potential treatment areas continuously dwindled in the face of constant pressure from supporters of no management.

Former Fishlake Forest Supervisor Rob Mrowka, an advocate for and strong believer in community collaboration (see Thousand Lake Community Forestry Initiative sidebar) and the potential for stewardship contracting, signed the Record of Decision to proceed with the project in December 2000. Local businesses potentially interested in bidding on the contract believed that, after five years since initial analysis and three since public discussion began, restoration work would begin on Monroe Mountain in the summer of 2001.

Community groups such as the Southern Utah Forest Products Association (SUFPA) and nearby sawmills including Escalante’s Utah Forest Products and Stoltze Aspen Mill in Sigurd--at the northern base of Monroe Mountain--were excited about the prospects of implementing the project after years of collaboration with the agency through the stewardship contracting process. The proposed multi-phase MMERP would be one means for providing raw material stability and long-term work—including conifer and aspen thinning and removal, sagebrush treatments, fence construction, road improvements and decommissioning, and tree planting—for woods workers and the remaining few sawmills in south-central Utah. Combined with the potential for the Thousand Lake Initiative and other, more traditional, Forest Service projects, the outlook was cautiously optimistic.

It’s now June 2004, three years since this high point of optimism. SUFPA is simply a shell of its former self and currently in the process of dissolving (see related sidebar), Utah Forest Products no longer exists, though Skyline Forest Resources has taken its place in Escalante, and Stoltze Aspen Mill, specifically designed to assist in the utilization of Utah aspen, could no longer wait for raw material and shut down in late 2001. MMERP has undergone three appeals by the Utah Environmental Congress in Salt Lake City, the current iteration to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, one misguided attempt at contracting the project in the summer of 2003 in which no bidders were found, and the loss of much of Utah’s sawmill capacity in the interim, and implementation has not yet begun.

After the second appeal and motion for stay at the District Court level was denied--to be immediately followed by the appeal to the Circuit Court--the Fishlake positively worked with remaining potential project bidders to ensure the service elements of the contract would be more understandable and that the restoration project would be economically feasible. While still awaiting the decision of the Circuit Court, the Fishlake re-released the MMERP solicitation, hoping to award the contract, receive another favorable decision from the courts, and begin implementing the project this summer. In a sadly ironic twist, the very day before the bidder’s informational meeting and field tour on June 24th, the Circuit Court ruled against the Fishlake and sent the case back to the District Court. Don Okerlund received word the morning of the bidder’s meeting.

MMERP appeal issues have always centered on roadless and Management Indicator Species (MIS) and in this instance the District Court overruled the Circuit Court’s interpretation of Fishlake and MMERP MIS. The Forest must now provide the quantitative MIS data deemed to be lacking in the EIS and required by the Fishlake Forest Plan before the project can proceed. Along with Utah interests, operators had come from as far as Colorado for the June 24th bidder’s meeting. They went home that morning experiencing the frustration so many connected to MMERP over the years have continually felt as this project has endured fits and starts.

Okerlund, as he has steadfastly done since the late 90s, ensured those attending the bidder’s meeting that the project would proceed once the Forest provides the necessary MIS data. But as one of the few original stewardship contracting pilot projects to not yet arrive at implementation, there is creeping doubt, among all partners, that the restoration work will ever occur. There are many possible reasons MMERP is continuously stalled: faulty Forest Service planning and documentation; no-management activist strategies that have targeted MMERP; lengthy terms between court decisions; even partners’ dwindling active participation and dissolving vocal support for the project, leaving the agency to defend the project on their own, is a legitimate culprit. Whatever the reasons, and they are multiple, the promises of stewardship contracting, so apparent and possible in other locations throughout the Four Corners region, has yet to be experienced in Utah.

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