By David O. Williams
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September 12, 2008 — The battle over management of Colorado’s 4.4 million acres of roadless public lands has abruptly intensified, after years of federal intervention, state resistance and legal wrangling dating back to the final days of the Clinton administration.
At stake, according to a coalition of environmental groups fighting to protect roadless areas, is whether wide swaths of relatively unscathed national forest will be made more accessible to motorized vehicles, allowing incursion by logging companies, oil and gas drilling, construction of water pipelines and power transmission lines, and expansion by the state’s ski industry.
At stake, according to a coalition of environmental groups fighting to protect roadless areas, is whether wide swaths of relatively unscathed national forest will be made more accessible to logging companies, oil and gas drilling, construction of water pipelines and power transmission lines, and expansion by the state’s ski industry.
“Our strategy is to show the public that this proposed draft Colorado rule isn’t going to protect roadless areas if it becomes final, it just isn’t, because there are very, very broad exceptions to the general prohibitions on road construction and logging,” said Rocky Smith of Durango-based Colorado Wild.
“[The exceptions] are so broad that many hundreds of thousands of acres of roadless areas could be roaded and/or logged,” said Smith, “and I think if the public sees this, as I think they are, they’re going to rebel against this.”
Conservationists argue that the value of Colorado’s roadless areas as wildlife habitat and pristine areas ideal for tourism, hunting and fishing far outweighs their short-term benefit to the so-called extractive industries that do business on the state’s public lands.
The state’s environmental community is trying to drive home that point before an Oct. 23 deadline to submit public comments on Colorado’s draft roadless rule, while also increasing traffic to various U.S. Forest Service public open houses being conducted around the state — beginning with one tonight in Grand Junction.
The Clinton administration appeared to agree with environmentalists when federal officials protected nearly 50 million acres of roadless public lands nationwide in early 2001. The Bush administration immediately suspended Clinton’s 2001 roadless rules and several years later implemented a policy of allowing states to petition the Forest Service to enact local control.
Only two states did so: Idaho and Colorado under then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who did so at the behest of the Bush administration. A U.S. district judge in San Francisco later ruled against the Bush administration’s suspension of the 2001 rule and in favor of reinstating the Clinton roadless rule.
In the meantime, Owens was term-limited out of office and Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter opted last year to go ahead with the petition for a draft Colorado roadless rule as insurance in the event that another court ruled against the Clinton roadless rule, which is exactly what happened last month.
A district court judge in Wyoming ruled that the Clinton administration did not follow proper National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures for public scoping, and he reportedly did so in language strongly couched in political rancor, which some say may make an appeal more likely to succeed.
But Smith and other conservationists are not counting on the 2001 Clinton rule to ever be reinstated. Instead they are focused on making sure the new draft Colorado roadless rule has all of the protections of the 2001 rule — something he believes Ritter intended all along.
“We would like to have the ’01 rule back, but that’s going to take a while because that’s in front of the court,” Smith said. “So in the meantime, we’re bracing for the fact that there likely will be a final Colorado rule sometime, probably not till next year, and it’s got to be much improved, because the current rule is so bad. It just has so much discretion for the Forest Service that there will just be no protection for roadless areas.”
Smith said the ’01 rule made plenty of exceptions for building roads that serve a critical public need, such as a logging road near a community to remove beetle-kill trees that present a major fire danger. But he adds that the new Colorado rule makes those exceptions far too broad, allowing road-building deep into the forest for a variety of reasons.
Smith is urging people to attend an open house tonight from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, or Thursday night from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Lincoln Avenue Community Center in Steamboat Springs.
Or people can send a comment by e-mail to COcomments@fsroadless.org; by fax to (916) 456–6724, or by snail mail to: Roadless Area Conservation - Colorado, P.O. Box 162909, Sacramento, CA 95816–2909.
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