Colorado, feds start crafting rules on roadless forest land |

Colorado, feds start crafting rules on roadless forest land

DENVER – A top federal official says 4.1 million acres of roadless national forests in Colorado will remain off-limits to most development while state and federal land managers develop rules to manage the areas.The assurance came from Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. Forest Service policy. Rey and regional Forest Service officials met with state officials about a petition from Gov. Bill Ritter seeking protection for most of the Colorado acres in question.Rey, in an interview with The Associated Press, said it will likely take 16 to 18 months to complete the rules. In the interim, he said, the federal government will work with Colorado to protect the roadless areas if a court decision banning development on them is overturned.The fate of the roadless areas in Colorado and other states is uncertain after six years of court and policy battles.A rule issued by the Clinton administration in 2001 banned logging and other development on 58.5 million acres in national forests nationwide, including the 4.1 million in Colorado.After U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, Wyo., voided that rule, the Bush administration opened about a third of the land to development but allowed states to petition to protect all or some of it.In September, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco reinstated the Clinton-era rule.The Bush administration was already considering a petitions from a handful of states when Laporte issued her ruling.Ritter still submitted Colorado’s petition, which was drafted under his predecessor. Ritter called it an insurance policy in case the issue takes more legal turns in the courts. He also requested interim protection for the forest land while the plan was considered.Rey told the AP that interim protection is not needed, “at least right now,” because the 2001 rule is back in force.”Should that change, however, the governor has a valid concern about what would be the status quo at that point.”That was the reason to nail down how we would handle interim protection,” Rey added.Rey wrote in an April 27 letter to Ritter that if the Clinton-era rule is changed or tossed out again, “consistent with any subsequent court order, no activity inconsistent with the 2001 Rule will be authorized without the state’s endorsement during the time necessary to promulgate the Colorado rule.”The administration also pledged to notify the state if it approves activities allowed under exemptions to the 2001 rule.Rey added that Colorado can withdraw its petition at any time.Supporters of keeping development off the roadless areas had urged Ritter not to endorse the statewide plan written by a task force and submitted by former Gov. Bill Owens last year. Although the plan had wide support, some environmentalists, hunters and others said the 2001 rule provides more protection.How long that protection will last is unclear.The Bush administration and the timber industry group American Forest Resource Council are appealing Laporte’s decision to reinstate the 2001 roadless rule. A hearing is scheduled for Friday in federal court in Cheyenne on the state of Wyoming’s request seeking reinstatement of Brimmer’s 2003 ruling that voided the Clinton-era policy.The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considered an appeal of Brimmer’s decision in 2005 but declared the case irrelevant after the Bush administration adopted a new policy.Rey said the Bush administration believes Laporte erred when she concluded that environmental studies should have been done before the forest policy was changed.”The 2005 rulemaking was a procedural rulemaking. It didn’t have any environmental effects,” Rey said. “Any environmental effects that would occur would occur as a result of state-specific rules that we develop. We are fully prepared and intending to discharge our responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act and if there are responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act to discharge them when we develop the state-specific rule.”The Forest Service is also considering a petition from Idaho for managing the 9.3 million acres of national forest land declared roadless in that state.The 2001 roadless rule was passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration after more than two years of public hearings and 1.6 million comments. About a third of the country’s 192 million acres of national forest lands was affected.Some of the areas protected as roadless have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.

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