Tribes, a Ski Area, a Sacred Mountain and a Former Forest Supervisor: Plus, What Does it Mean to Consult Exactly and Who Decides?

Laura Jo West stands outside the Coconino National Forest headquarters, where she served as forest supervisor for more than seven years.
Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

Many thanks to an Anonymous for sending this piece in! So many interesting facets.

Tribes, political issues, ski areas, how politically hot topics are managed internally by the Forest Service, the difficulty of developing collaborative relationships with shifting people, how the line officer is uniquely responsible relative to others on the forest, due to the line/staff structure. Questions.. would we feel differently were environmental interests pushing someone out of their responsibilities rather than a for-profit permittee? Would we feel the same way about, say, a rare-earth mining operation or a wind energy facility exerting political power? What does consultation actually mean if it doesn’t mean “we can’t go ahead without your sign-off”? If the same decision had been made during the last Admin, would the coverage have been different? The Forest Service is in the Executive Branch, so clearly elected officials get to decide ultimately.  Which can be extremely frustrating for employees who have sunk their hearts, souls and extra hours into a project or a relationship.

Because the article is so long, and interesting, and with no paywall, I’ll only post one excerpt. Check it out for yourself. And thanks again, Anonymous!

“The new agreement

Presented with the chance to create consensus and collaboration around a sacred site that had long been the “epicenter” of controversy, West had no illusions about the difficulty of the work ahead.

“It was going to be messy, it was going to be hard, we were probably going to have fights in various places along the way,” she said. “It was going to be a challenge. But I think it was the right challenge.”

For these reasons, West wasn’t willing to unilaterally promise a timeline for approving the new MOA. As recommended by federal directives, she went in with an “open mind” and wanted to develop a timeline through the consultation process.

“I wasn’t promising anyone, including the tribes, an outcome because I didn’t know what was going to develop,” she said. “It was a completely wide open, kind of scary place. But I thought, ‘That’s OK, we’re going to travel it together.’”

From Jocks’ perspective, West “saw an opening and took it.” Her efforts seemed “sincere” when he met with her about a new MOA.

“She wanted to do the right thing,” he said. “She understood there were limitations, but wanted to do what she could.”

But West’s approach of elevating tribal consultation soon caught the attention of Mountain Capital Partners (MCP), which owns Snowbowl. She said her refusal to offer a definite timeline was unacceptable to MCP and Snowbowl executives.

“I told them it could take at least a year and a half, maybe even two, to get a new MOA down because we’re opening up a conversation with tribes,” she said. “They said, ‘No, it only takes three months.’”

Snowbowl put forth the MOA timeline built around “minimum legal requirements,” but this did not satisfy West.

“We have the discretion to do so much better than that,” she said.

What happened next was somewhat expected, West said: Snowbowl complained. In January and February this year, MCP, the largest ski area collective in the Southwest, scheduled meetings with Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. In a Feb. 17 phone call with West’s superior, quoted in a grievance letter provided to the Arizona Daily Sun by West, regional forester Michiko Martin informed West that MCP stated it did not “believe [West is] a neutral and trusted agent. They believe that you are orchestrating a master plan to upend them.”

West was accused of being “pro-tribe” and “biased toward tribes” and otherwise “deliberately stalling to prevent MCP from implementing approved projects.”

“I asked regional forester Martin if MCP provided any evidence for their allegations,” West wrote in her grievance letter. “She replied they had not.”

While West expected that Snowbowl would complain, she did not expect how these complaints would be received by the Forest Service. On March 17, right after the conclusion of the meetings between MCP and Moore, West received a letter from Martin informing her that her authority to address the expiration of the Snowbowl MOA was rescinded “effective immediately,” and re-delegated to Steve Hattenbach, supervisor of the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico.

West said she was shocked that in one fell swoop, the Forest Service chose to accommodate MCP rather than defer to her judgment, despite the fact that she was a devoted employee and agency leader with 33 years of experience.

When asked to estimate the reason behind this decision, West speculated that it could have something to do with the influence of the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), whose board overlaps with MCP leadership.

“I was told by my boss that [the NSAA] lobby on behalf of the Forest Service for additional funding for recreation, infrastructure and things like that,” West said. “It was made clear to me in a conversation I had with my boss that it was a relationship the agency wanted to protect.””

24 thoughts on “Tribes, a Ski Area, a Sacred Mountain and a Former Forest Supervisor: Plus, What Does it Mean to Consult Exactly and Who Decides?”

  1. I was the acting Ranger on the Peaks RD when the EIS was being signed to us wastewater to make snow at Snowbowl. Interesting time. The Tribes were very much against it and went to court. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court and they did not consider it. The Tribes lost that one.

    I don’t find it surprising that corporate interests have a lot of sway over the FS. Nothing new really although some, including me, may find it disappointing.

  2. I agree with Dave; I was in Roundtable many years with Laura Jo, having seen what she accomplished on the Colville NF was indeed inspirational. I also know she went to the Coconimo with a “battle royale” on her hands over the use of treated sewer water on a mountain sacred to the indigenous Tribes. The FS does a good job talking out of both sides of their mouth, when the need arises, and does not like pushback! Region 3 is kind’a notorious for that….

    Having said the above, it made good sense (from the leadership perspective) to put Hattenbach as part of the mix. Steve is not only a good guy but also was an OGC Attorney, before he saw the ills of his ways and went into management (just kidding 🤣). It would beg the question as to why not put both Supervisors into the role of negotiators for the new permit, instead of the clobbering of Laura Jo, and one of the DRF’s as approved?

    Oh well, I’m sure the outcome will be just what Smokey ordered!

  3. How many times have we seen something like this happen? Money buys political influence that impacts government actions. I worked on a high profile project with a billionaire proponent that removed all doubt in my mind that the USFS is corrupt when it comes to how it jumps to the desires of the rich and powerful. In the end, though, analyses/decisions sped up due to corporate pressure often take longer because they get litigated over and over again. And they erode public trust.

    Sharon, per you question, “If the same decision had been made during the last Admin, would the coverage have been different?” Of course, and how it would be covered would depend on the leanings of the media from which you get your news. But, the guy leading the past administration also made comments that could be construed to be racists, so he basically begged the media to provide negative coverage. What was Trump’s nickname for Sen. Warren?

    • Mike, I think I remember the same project you’re talking about… the one I called Reasonable Access for Unreasonable People. Tetratech and (the team formerly known as) Redskins tickets; envelopes taped under the Forest Supe’s desk.

      I don’t understand why the President being a jerk makes it OK for media to cast shade, accurately or not, on everything the Admin does. If you follow that argument, then if Prez Biden is a nice person (which he appears to be) then the media is not responsible for critiquing anything that happens in his Admin.

      Hopefully our media entities feel more responsibility to accuracy than that.

      • Sharon, I guess I don’t know what you mean by “throwing shade.” If this happened under Trump, who demanded allegiance within his administration, it would make perfect sense that the media (other than right-wing media; they would be focused on Hillary or Hunter or on how Biden messed up his words) would elevate the story since he had made so many comments that could be construed to be racist. That’s not throwing shade, that is connecting dots. Also, like Oil and Gas companies, the media is run by people. People are less likely to cut someone slack if they are constantly being insulted by that person. That is just human nature.

        Per Village at Wolf Creek Access project. You referenced the first round of analysis. The influence by the proponent didn’t stop in round 2 and 3a and 3b, it just changed. The link to the Crestone Eagle article made me cringe. The writer, who I know fairly well, is the executive director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. Chris does many good things in the SLV and I love her passion, but her article was very biased and on some points, not quite factual and misleading.

        • Mike, I think we can agree that the (mainstream) (NYT, WaPo) Coastal media and Prez Trump did not have a positive relationship. I would argue that (media who consider themselves relatively objective) should have tried to be the adults in the room. Perhaps that’s an opportunity to do our own reporting and try harder to be fair. I’m up for that.

          I would be interested in a post from you on the topic (Village at Wolf Creek) that was more accurate, if you would be willing. I only picked that one because it was recent, I haven’t been following it since I retired.

          • Sharon/Mike, I second that on an article that could be written with more facts than fiction. I’ve been following The Village since long before my “second coming” into the Forest Service. Family used to ski there annually and have a connection there, and as some working as Planning Director.

            Personal opinions aside; oh hell, I don’t operate that way – given the actual permit for the road, what is wrong with such a now “morphed” development on private land?

          • Sharon, We will have to discuss future articles posted as to whether we think they are fair. We may have a different opinion on what is fair. NYT, by the way, has one of the best track records of facts based reporting (not including opinion pieces, of course). They lean left with what they report and the language they use. What isn’t reported is just as important as what is reported which is why it is good to read/watch/listen to a variety of media outlets. It is also important to remember that the media is writing for a wide range of people that don’t necessarily have backgrounds in science and government bureaucracy. Drama and negativity sells (and motivates people towards action as politicians know), which is how Fox (for one example) has grown and maintained such a large audience.

            I would suggest anyone wanting to learn more about the Village at Wolf Creek project just do an online search. There is a lot of info from a variety of sources. I put out press releases, so they tended to be short and not go into a lot of detail about the history. Plus, everyone of my VWC press releases had to be reviewed by the Regional Office and sometimes the Washington Office and Department of Justice. The RO, WO and DOJ were not focused on transparency. Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas and I both got spanked by DOJ, WO and RO for responding to a Durango Herald reporter when the project was being litigated (one of the many times). The director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance was putting out derogatory misinformation and the Herald was going to run with just that unless we responded. Dan responded first and when he told me that I said, “Well I’m going to too then.” Interesting, the RO Recreation Director at the time (I can’t remember his name) gave me kudos for my comment while everyone else was mad at me. The SJ Citizens Alliance received 20,000 of our emails via a FOIA request and used them to make false accusations. My comment was, “It’s pretty easy to cherry pick snippets from 20,000 email and combine them to make any story you want.” I felt like the Pagosa Springs SUN had some of the best and most balanced reporting.

            Jim, I agree that the proponent has the legal right for full year access to their land to develop within the stipulations allowed by the county. That said, I personally would hate to see it developed, but I have lived here for going on 45 years now. It is different for the long-term locals. We live here because it is not a Breckenridge, or Vail, or Aspen. I don’t know too many long-term locals nor RGNF employees who are supportive of building a large resort by the ski area, but there are a few.

            • Mike, I appreciate your response. However, the founding of this country provided the utmost privilege of ownership, and right to do with private lands as the owner sees fit. Certainly, County Ordinances and zoning apply, but we have all to many folks who don’t own land, trying to control those who do. I support local voices for local issues.

              The land exchange or permitting(whichever) should stand alone, not being influenced one way or another by proposed use of that land. Hopefully, we can get an opportunity to have that debate on here sometime…. It is a tangled mess, for sure!

              • Jim, Interestingly, the original (1986?) land exchange has quite a history. The Rio Grande National Forest was against it, but the land exchange was approved at higher levels cloaked in secrecy. Money has a way of making things happen, but that is water over the bridge now.

  4. Jim Z and Dave: Your observations would be a lot more interesting and compelling if they were attached to real people. I’m sure “Laura Jo,” “Steve,” and “the billionaire” are likely based on real people somehow, but with all of the obscure inside references, what is the need to publicly post here? And why — particularly — anonymously? Beginning to seem more fictional than factional in many ways. I’m sure you are both important people that don’t need the personal attention, but it would be good to have more context or credibility if you expect bystanders to respond or be appreciative..

      • Sorry everyone that was my fault! I attempted to strip off some tracking stuff at the end of the link I received but mistakenly apparently stripped off too much and didn’t check. Entirely on me. Apologies to everyone!

    • Bob, I assure you the references are all real people; as Laura Jo says, the article explains it pretty well. I’m generally not shy calling out the players, so I’m missing your point somehow….

      I had a devil of a time getting it to load yesterday, with mountain bike races and general Pilgrims enjoying the High Country, service was overwhelmed…. About the time I was going to complain about not loading, it loaded….🤠

  5. Thanks everyone: Yes, I should have followed the link and my questions would have been answered. Taking things out of context is usually not a good idea — case in point. I’ll do my reading now.

    • But I didn’t post a link that worked… so there’s that. Thanks Cindy for pointing it out! Bob, if we ever get too “insider baseball” please let us know, we don’t intend to.

      • Sharon, you are correct; I went to Arizona Day Sun and pulled it from their website…..only been less than 24 hrs and I had already forgotten….🤣

        It still is a pretty good piece of journalism, capturing the dilemma between big money and power and the noble cause of doing (or trying to do) “the greatest good”……

  6. “would we feel differently were environmental interests pushing someone out of their responsibilities rather than a for-profit permittee?”

    Can anyone imagine that actually happening? (If someone knows a story like that, please share it!) This is the Forest Service we all know, and many don’t trust, especially with regard to public opinion (as opposed to monied, politically connected, private opinion).

  7. There is so much to unpack in this excellent and complex story! I worked in Heritage resource management for the adjacent Kaibab National Forest in the 80s and 90s, then went to DC to see how the sausage was made. On the Kaibab, we signed the first MOU with a Tribe over management of sacred sites back in the 1990s, and created active partnerships with youth and elders through the years that are ongoing. Things like spring restoration, forest thinning, site visits. One of the reasons I left in 2000 is because (as a district recreation staffer) I was in charge of an EIS to expand the Bill Williams Ski Area, on another sacred mountain. I couldn’t stomach it, honestly! Some of the comments back then had to do with climate change making snowmaking unfeasible, which at the time seemed out of the scope of the analysis. How wrong we were! “Let’s get real . . . We have a ski area in a freaking desert,” said Laura Jo 22 years later. That Bill Williams ski area expansion never did happen, mostly because the economics didn’t work. Thank god the spotted owl was also a factor, because otherwise it might have been approved. Today, Tribes approve of helicopter thinning on that mountain to protect the watershed.

    The Heritage staff on the Coconino and the Kaibab couldn’t have been more different. I feel that Laura Jo’s let her down by not being on top of the status of the MOA. Probably the Ranger had a part of this too. That’s unsaid in the story, but I’m still in touch with former colleagues. Laura Jo is probably too classy to say so. I’ve never met her, but she is admired by many I know.

    This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened in the SW region–look at the Rosemont Mine on the Coronado and the Resolution Copper Company on the Tonto. The FS can talk a good game but when push comes to shove, the special interests win. What an insult to discipline her in such a way! Hattenbach may be a good guy and smart legal brain, but he has a tough job.

    What makes me saddest about this story is Laura Jo’s realization that after 33 years of devoting her life and health to the FS, they dumped her. Many if not most of the successful female line and staff officers I’ve observed do not have children and many are not married, or have to live separate lives and career locations from their spouses. I was able to pull off a career with a FS spouse with lots of sacrifice on who did what when, but I chose not to have children, which made it so much easier to live that peripatetic lifestyle. I still bleed green, and in fact will be seeing former colleagues at the retirees reunion next week, but this story pains me. Thanks for highlighting it.

    • Teri, basically I was also “dumped” after 32 years. It doesn’t feel good, for sure. I don’t know if it was a personality conflict, ageism, or a political conflict exacerbated by a personality conflict, but I was pulled off a project I was working on, even after my grievance was upheld.

      Or maybe it was this blog. Who knows? When I look back on it, I remember one of our DRFs saying “maybe my talents would be more suited for academia” (this will cause guffawing by any readers in academia). The hardest part for me was the change in how my colleagues treated me, part of the shunning process.

      Anyway, I look at the “bad period” as an anomaly. In 32 years I had a few “Camelot” periods, and some rougher periods. I also think that there are many ways that the forcibly or voluntarily retired can do the things they like to do related to the vocation, without doing the parts of the job they don’t like to do. And we can perhaps actually have more influence than we could in our paid work..

      Not all retirees are called to continue to work in this world. But if you are.. there continues to be challenging and fun work to be done without mysterious hiring apps, and whatever other bureaucratic obstacles the FS currently inflicts on its employees. IMHO.

  8. Sharon, I’m sorry to hear that. We could share some stories over a glass (or two) or wine sometime! I also have some great memories of working on high performing teams, but my exit was not what I’d wished. The crazy thing is that I’m glad my career was shorter than I thought I’d want. Life is better for me as a retiree. I’m very happy that you keep this blog going.

    • Me too. If you’re ever up this way, give me a holler and we’ll do just that. I also enjoy life as a retiree better. This blog is like having all the fun parts of work without the annoying parts (and people).


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading