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Wilderness Workshop on Friday issued the following press release after the release by the U.S. Forest Service of its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Berlaimont Estates project near Edwards:
Today, the US Forest Service (USFS) issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the Berlaimont Estates Access Road, which is unchanged from the analysis released last year and signals that the agency will approve a damaging paved road through sensitive wildlife habitat.
“The Forest Service is poised to make a terrible decision. With wildlife populations in staggering decline due to increased development and recreation in critical winter range, this is not the time to abandon seasonal closures and pave sensitive habitat for more development,” said Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop Staff Attorney. “This is the last thing wildlife populations need at the worst possible time. The project will also put more people and expensive homes in a fire prone landscape at a time when it’s clear we can’t afford to protect our already built environment. We’re reviewing the analysis and contemplating next steps.”
The Berlaimont Estates Road Improvement Project would allow a developer to build 19 new mansions on 680 acres in the middle of the White River National Forest. If approved, this project would include a year-round access road, paving wild public lands to facilitate sprawl in the backcountry.
Public opposition to this project is extraordinary,” said longtime resident Howard Leavitt. “Thousands commented and signed petitions opposing the project. Dozens of us took the time to review the FEIS in detail and to file formal objections. Even senior Forest Service officials noted several flaws in the analysis and recommended revisiting several issues. But, the FEIS published today was, literally, the same FEIS released before the objection period—word for word. No changes were made based on our objections. The indifference shown toward protecting this critical habitat and the thousands of citizens’ comments and objections is extremely disappointing and disheartening.”
For years, a wide range of advocates have raised concerns that the road would cut through some of the last best winter wildlife habitat in the Eagle Valley, reducing deer and elk populations that are already in dramatic decline. The project flies in the face of deep community opposition (over 4,200 community members signed a petition) and the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis by “…deploying the full capacity of (federal) agencies to conserve our lands, waters, and biodiversity; sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees and other vegetation; and the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with this proposal, raised by nearly everyone who has engaged, is the impact it will have on the wildlife. Winter wildlife habitat is a limiting resource for deer and elk populations; habitat they need to survive Colorado’s coldest and snowiest months,” said Tim Wolf, Hunter & small business owner. “They rely on areas where snow accumulations are low, where there may still be some forage or unnecessary disturbance can be the difference between life and death. These populations are on the ropes because of the past decisions we’ve made- the choice we’ve made to prioritize development and recreation above habitat protection and restoration. We’ve got to accept the situation we’re in, to be accountable to one another and local wildlife to ensure our deer and elk populations persist. One person can make the difference and everyone should try! Now is the time to protect this habitat. To date, we haven’t been able to.”
During a January 7, 2021 Berlaimont Estates Access Route Objection Resolution Meeting, 16 people – including Wilderness Workshop staff Attorney Peter Hart – raised objections to the EIS and draft Record of Decision for the project, issued in late 2020. Reviewing Officer Tammy Angel issued conclusions and eight Instructions for the White River National Forest Staff to take before a final Decision is made on the project. Unfortunately, it appears that USFS is poised to approve a new road based on an analysis remains fundamentally flawed.
“We are in a 20-year drought, one of the two driest periods in the last 1,200 years. If a wildfire sparked near a new luxury Berlaimont home, firefighters, such as my own daughter-in-law, would likely be called to the remote site,” said retired biology teacher and longtime Eagle Valley Resident Christie Hochtl. “I would hate to see her lose her life saving a home that should have never been built in the first place.”
Wilderness Workshop anticipates Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will sign the final Record of Decision soon—the agency has to wait 30 days after release of the FEIS before issuing a final decision. Working with a coalition of conservation partners, staff will be closely reviewing the decision and considering all available next steps.
“The situation for local wildlife populations is dire. We can’t keep approving new roads and development in sensitive habitat and expect wildlife to persist. The dramatic population declines we’ve witnessed are a result of those same decisions,” said former district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and 50-year Eagle Valley resident, Bill Heicher. “In the long term, the paved road, additional developed recreation, new parking lots and the new subdivision will directly destroy important habitat and encourage far deeper penetration into a fragile ecosystem that barely sustains the native species today. In short, the Forest Service is creating a sacrifice zone in Edwards for development and recreation. To most of us, that is unreasonable and unacceptable.”
Wilderness Workshop has been engaged in the fight to stop the Berlaimont Access Road for over 10 years – working with passionate community members to organize opposition, gathering support from elected officials and decision-makers, and engaging in the public process at every point possible. The public is overwhelmingly opposed to the project and Wilderness Workshop encourages concerned community members to let the USFS know that community opposition remains strong and the fight to Buck Berlaimont is far from over.