Response is mixed regarding Wednesday's announcement that the Colorado Roadless Rule is nearing completion, with the final days for public comment already ticking away.
The 2012 rule covers 4.2 million acres in Colorado, including more stringent protection for more than 1 million of those acres of roadless National Forest land than in the 2001 national rule. It represents a compromise hashed out over years by the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies.
The problem for some is that some lands would remain open for ski resort expansion and temporary roads for coal mines. Officials say those exceptions aren't significant.
It's part of the compromise, said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in their Wednesday announcement in Denver.
As of Wednesday, the final environmental impact statement and the recommended alternative were issued, but a 30-day comment period is in place for final remarks on the rule before adoption. Letters of support have been sent to President Obama to encourage putting the rule in place rather than setting it aside in favor of updating the national rule.
The compromise was hailed as an accomplishment of the locally driven public process and should be recognized, Sen. Mark Udall said. More than 310,000 comments were received from people throughout the country during the July 2006 to April 2011 process, which included five public comment periods.
"Almost no party got everything it wanted, but nearly all have agreed is fair," Udall wrote in his letter to Obama. "I believe this collaborative work deserves recognition. Delays in the adoption of a Colorado Roadless Rule have led to confusion and uncertainty and I urge its approval as soon as possible."
Former President Bill Clinton approved a rule in 2001 prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest. The George W. Bush administration later opened the door to commercial development on some of that land, but states could petition to protect certain areas, the Associated Press reported.
Still, not everyone is pleased with the rule.
In 2005, when federal court challenges left the fate of the Clinton-era policy in doubt, Colorado began eyeing its own roadless rule. Courts have since upheld the 2001 rule, prompting some environmentalist to urge Colorado to stick with the national policy instead of using the state version, which includes input from mining companies, energy companies, ski resorts and others, according to the Associated Press.
The new rule is a step in the right direction, said Scott Braden, conservation director with the Colorado Mountain Club, but it's not quite there yet. For him, the 2001 rule is the preferred alternative because of its higher levels of protection.
"There are still some troubling elements that preclude the CMC's full endorsement, including exemptions for coal mine methane venting, ski area expansions and new roads in roadless areas," he wrote in a statement. "We hope that the Obama administration will continue to strengthen the Colorado Rule's protections and close some of the exceptions in the final weeks of the rulemaking."
Udall called the exemptions "legitimate," such as addressing forest-fire threats, insect infestations near certain communities, accommodating ski area management and continuing underground coal production in the North Fork coal mining area, as well as accessing and maintaining water and utility corridors.
Ted Zukoski, attorney for non-profit law firm Earthjustice, agrees with Braden that the new rule is a better version of earlier drafts, but says it's a step in the wrong direction because it leaves more acreage open to road-building than under the 2001 national roadless rule.
"When finalized, this rule will provide a lasting commitment for the protection of roadless areas on our national forests, areas vital for water conservation, wildlife and for outdoor recreation," Vilsack said. "Colorado's roadless areas are also important for economic growth and development, providing opportunity for tourism and job development in rural communities."
Udall cited the importance of forest lands for clean water, beautiful vistas for skiers and hikers, clean streams for anglers and habitat for healthy game herds for hunters. Such resources attract visitors from the nation and world and are crucial to Coloradans' quality of life, he said.
No one disagreed.
Though the rule's flexibility was frowned upon by some, others hailed it as the success of coming to a resolution.
"The new roadless rule represents a characteristically Colorado achievement," Hickenlooper said. "(It) enhances all that makes Colorado special while at the same time providing a measure of flexibility that supports local economies and ensures communities can take steps to protect themselves from threats of wildfire."
There are 363 roadless areas across 4.2 million acres throughout Colorado, located in eight national forests. All of them would be managed under the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule. Future forest plans and revisions would be consistent with the provisions of the rule.