Uncompahgre Plateau Project

Posted: Jun 1, 2005
Written by: 
Robyn Morrison

Delta, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, west-central Colorado

Objectives: To develop a collaborative approach to restore and maintain the ecosystem health of the Uncompahgre Plateau using best science and public input.

Participants: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Western Area Power Administration, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., and the Public Lands Partnership.

History: At the heart of west-central Colorado is the Uncompahgre Plateau, a high-domed sage and juniper-covered upland bisected by steep-walled canyons that rises from the Colorado River and sweeps 70 miles southeast to the base of the snow-capped San Juan Mountains. This arid region of mesas and rugged canyons stands in stark contrast to the fertile irrigated river valleys that flank the Plateau's lower elevations.

In the mid-1990s, the Colorado Department of Wildlife became increasingly alarmed about declining mule deer populations on the Plateau. Overgrazing, fire suppression, and misguided restoration techniques had left overall ecosystem health in jeopardy, including mule deer habitat.

For years, the Uncompahgre Plateau was fabled among hunters as one of the best places to hunt trophy mule deer. During the mid-1980s, hunters were taking 4,000 to 5,000 mule deer bucks a year from the Plateau. But by 1998, when the state's wildlife agency instituted limited hunting licenses for the area, that number had dropped to less than 2,000 bucks each year. The survival rate of mule deer fawns had also plummeted by nearly half.

State wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service officials brought their concerns to the Public Lands Partnership (PLP). The consensus-based PLP had formed in1992 to find solutions to contentious public land use issues that brewed after timber sales on the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre National Forest had been sharply curtailed.

Working under the umbrella of the PLP, a variety of on-the-ground projects were initiated in 1998 to improve mule deer habitat on the 1.5 million-acre Uncompahgre Plateau. These projects attracted a $500,000 grant from Colorado's Department of Wildlife and also helped to secure a sizeable five-year grant from the Ford Foundation for community-based forestry demonstration projects. The Uncompahgre Plateau Project was officially created in 2001 to facilitate a landscape-scale restoration effort on the Plateau, which is comprised of 75 percent state and federal lands.

The UPP is guided by its own Technical Advisory Committee, made up of citizens and state and federal agents working on the ground, and an Executive Committee that includes the state directors of the Department of Wildlife and BLM, and the regional forester for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. Not only does the Project have buy-in from local citizens, county officials and environmental groups, it also has leverage at the state level - something that UPP members hope will work to their advantage now that the original infusion of grant money has dwindled and the group is faced with securing funding to continue long-term work.

Tamarisk eradication
Photo by Sheila Grother
Accomplishments: The UPP has completed a number of scientific studies and models, including GIS mapping of the Plateau, a landscape assessment, fire history studies, and a landscape dynamics model that predicts vegetative changes over time under different disturbance regimes. Since 1998, over 80 restoration projects covering 31,000 acres have been completed, including wildfire rehabilitation, controlled burns, thinning, seeding and road decommissioning. 10,000 acres of grazing permits have been purchased and will be restored and used for rotational grazing when new restoration areas need to be rested. A native plant program was developed to collect and grow seeds for use in further restoration projects on the Plateau. In 2003, the UPP established a Qualified Contracting Pool comprised of contractors whose businesses are located in one of the eight counties that have GMUG forest property. Pool members receive bid solicitations for planned restoration work.

In the last two years, project partners have completed an interagency management plan for two watersheds comprising approximately 220,000 acres. Approximately 2,000 of the 20,000 acres that require some form of treatment—most of it in pinyon-juniper and sagebrush communities—have already been treated.

In May 2005, the UPP sponsored a conference specifically to deal with the ecology and management of these habitats and promote collaborative landscape-level planning. Over 300 scientists, resource managers and local citizens participated.

The Colorado Department of Wildlife currently is conducting field studies to estimate the mule deer population and improve current knowledge of population dynamics, and to monitor seasonal habitat use, movements and dispersal of Gunnison sage grouse.

Following wildfires in the summer of 2002, a number of environmental groups expressed concern about several proposed salvage timber sales, specifically that the federal agencies did not have the staff to follow through with commitments for long-term scientific monitoring. In response, the UPP agreed to develop a community-monitoring program. In the end, environmental groups didn't appeal the salvage sales, and the monitoring project currently is evolving to include local citizens and schools.

State and federal officials involved with the project say they have been able to accomplish much more working collaboratively than they could as individually. State and federal budgets require that funding earmarked for projects is spent within "unreasonably" short time frames, but the UPP provides a place to "park" and spend the money as needed.

Challenges/constraints: Some participants in the PLP and its projects, including the Uncompahgre Plateau Project, say the group has experienced "growing pains" since attracting funding and pooling financial resources with various state and federal agencies. The challenge has been designing the organizational and legal framework for sharing the money.

The Partnership and its sister group, the Uncompahgre Plateau Project, have shifted from loosely organized to increasingly formalized efforts. While some members say it's an expected transition, others say that the groups are becoming mired in bureaucratic processes and that citizens no longer have as strong a voice. But most members say that citizen input has become even more valuable and effective, now that they have waded through the initial difficulties and learning curve of working within the framework of large federal bureaucracies, and they have launched the on-the-ground work.

For more information see:

Uncompahgre Plateau Project

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