Roadless plan for Colo. up for review | SummitDaily.com

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Roadless plan for Colo. up for review

SUMMIT COUNTY ” The U.S. Forest Service is launching a public review of a proposed rule for national forests in Colorado that could weaken protection for about 4.1 million acres of federal “roadless” lands in the state.

The latest version of the rule, specific to Colorado, leaves loopholes for mining, logging, ski-resort expansions and energy development, according to conservation groups.

The controversial roadless rule affects about 58 million acres nationally, including about 60,000 acres in Summit County ” mostly big chunks of federal land adjacent to existing wilderness areas.

Conservation groups said the comment period triggered by the July 25 publication of the rule in the Federal Register is a chance for Colorado once again to adopt the more stringent protections offered by the original version, first unveiled in the final months of the Clinton administration.

The proposed rule now open for review is based on a plan drawn up by a statewide roadless task force that convened after the nascent Bush administration opted for state-by-state standards for managing the roadless areas rather than a single national policy.

Both the Clinton rule and Bush’s replacement were challenged in court, with appeals still pending.

Strong public support

The Colorado version makes broad exceptions to leaving the land in its natural state for forest-health logging projects far in the backcountry, and it would remove protections for about 3,000 acres of so-called “inventoried” roadless areas in the White River National Forest to expand ski areas.

But in a series of hearings around the state, the task force heard strong public support for giving the roadless areas the highest possible level of protection short of formal wilderness designations by Congress.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife studied the plan and underscored the importance of protecting roadless areas for wildlife values.

Even a public-lands expert with the Blue Ribbon Coaliton, an Idaho-based advocacy group for motorized interests, recognized there was broad consensus in Colorado for roadless protection.

“You had hardcore dirt-bike riders saying they didn’t see the need for more road construction,” said the coalition’s Brian Hawthorne, who attended several of the state task-force meetings.

More important to motorized users is a modernized recreation-management scheme that ensures access and maintenance of existing national forest roads, he said.

Environmental organizations have been pressuring Gov. Bill Ritter to dump the state’s petition asking for protections for roadless areas under the Bush administration version of the rule, arguing that the version sent forward by his predecessor, Republican Bill Owens, preserves less land than the Clinton-era rule.

“We’d like to see a statement from Gov. Ritter … He could withdraw from the state petition-based rule,” said Colorado Wild forest analyst Rocky Smith.

It’s unlikely Ritter will take that step for political reasons, Smith said, but he hopes that at the very least, Colorado will delay adoption of the rule until after the November election or until a series of challenges to the various versions of the rule are resolved.

Outdoor and conservation groups are launching a media campaign urging Ritter to back away from the state plan.

State officials, meanwhile, said they are confident the plan will protect federal roadless areas while still being responsive to comments from local communities.

“Collaboration among the state of Colorado, local communities, and the U.S. Forest Service has resulted in a proposed roadless rule that provides the most effective way to manage and conserve National Forest System roadless areas in Colorado,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources deputy director Mike King.

Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer said there no plans to withdraw the state-based plan.

“There was a bit of concern when the Pew report came out,” Dreyer said, referring to a study showing that the state rule could affect the future of several hundred oil-and-gas leases on national forest land. “We needed to talk with the Forest Service. We’re hopeful and confident we can resolve this piece.”

A complex history

The complex history of the rulemaking and subsequent litigation has left everyone ” even Forest Service officials ” uncertain.

“I’m a little confused right now,” said Rich Doak, a recreation specialist with the White River National Forest.

Asked under which rule the forest is managing its roadless areas, Doak answered, “That’s the big national debate right now. We have guidance in our forest plan … and we’re confident that it’s not in conflict with either of the two rules.”

In previous interviews, Forest Service land managers said roadless areas in the White River National Forest are being to managed to preserve the status quo, with no new development or road-building permitted in so-called “inventoried” roadless areas.

Locally, the debate over the roadless areas focused on whether the rule would hinder the ability of the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risks and fight wildfires.

The Clinton administration’s proposal made some provisions for firefighting and forest health, but some local officials wanted even more leeway to ensure a speedy response in case of emergency.

The Clinton rule was adopted with the rationale that the Forest Service already has a huge maintenance backlog of $800 million on existing roads.

The agency also said roadless areas are critical for protecting watersheds and water quality, as barriers to invasive plants and for critical wildlife habitat.

The Clinton plan was criticized as being a last-ditch attempt to establish a public-lands legacy, and it was challenged in court by opponents claiming it circumvented required public participation requirements.

Backers of the rule said it was widely supported by the public, as evidenced by more than 1 million favorable comments nationwide and vocal public support at meetings in Colorado and other western states.

Inventoried roadless areas in national forest lands also serve as reservoirs for potential new wilderness lands, dating back to a comprehensive study in the 1970s.

In Summit County, a current proposal to add new wilderness draws heavily on inventoried roadless areas.

Learn more about hearings and comment opportunities on the proposed Colorado roadless rule in the Federal Register at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-16783.htm. There is a tentative schedule for Colorado meetings, inluding Aug. 27 in Glenwood Springs for the White River National Forest.

Information on the national roadless rule, including decisions in the various court cases, is online at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us.

Information on the Colorado roadless rule, including letters between the state and federal officials, is available at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us/

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Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.