Time-out on roadless rule?
April 24, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY Conservation groups continued their drumbeat on protection for millions of acres of roadless national forest lands this week by calling on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to put the brakes on a proposed rule for Colorados roadless areas.The April 22 letter from 10 local, state and national conservation groups requests that Vilsack suspend action on the proposed rule to provide all parties the opportunity to meet and discuss the fate of roadless areas in Colorado. We simply shouldnt accept a flawed plan for Colorados roadless forests, said Rocky Smith with Colorado Wild. State officials said the effort to stall the state rule is misguided.The Colorado roadless rule is stronger and more protective than the 2001 rule, said Theo Stein, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. In particular, the Colorado version of the regulation provides more flexibility to protect mountain communities from wildfire, Stein said.
The tortuous history of roadless protection goes back to 2001, when the outgoing Clinton administration adopted a national rule blocking road-building on 58.5 million acres of national forest lands across the country, including 4.1 million acres in Colorado and about 60,000 acres in Summit County.The Bush administration replaced the blanket protection with a state-based rule-making process. Both versions were challenged in federal court, with the conflicting decisions still under appeal. A federal court decision in California re-instated the Clinton rule, but only applied to states that joined in the lawsuit. A separate decision in a federal court in Wyoming dumped the Clinton rule based on procedural issues.At the same time, Colorado embarked on a state-specific rule-making process based on input from citizens, communities, wildlife agencies and others. Even though the state rule enjoyed widespread support, conservation groups saw the latest political changes in Washington, D.C. as a chance to seek what they think is a higher level of national protection.Until a strong national policy that truly protects roadless areas is in place, hunting, fishing and conservation groups want the federal government to grant a time out to any activities on the nations roadless forests that could damage those areas. Recently, more than 130 scientists sent a letter to President Obama requesting that the administration uphold the protections included in the 2001 rule. In March, 150 members of the U.S. Senate and House also signed letters to the Secretary urging protection until a federal policy is in place for these lands.
Conservation interests claim the state version could fragment wildlife habitat, jeopardize community watersheds and harm opportunities for outdoor recreation.Stein said the state is working with regional Forest Service officials on details of the state version. One outstanding area of concern is a number of oil and gas leases proposed for roadless areas, he said.Stein said the Colorado rule has evolved based on the latest science. He said the current draft adds about 200,000 acres to the areas originally proposed for roadless protection in the state. In some cases, the boundaries have been revamped to include both sides of certain watersheds rather than just one side.The most important thing from Colorados standpoint is to make sure that mountain communities can protect themselves from wildfire threats, Stein said. Conservation groups have argued that the 2001 rule includes adequate exceptions to fight fires in roadless areas near towns and neighborhoods.Stein said the Colorado version spells out those guidelines very clearly. The current draft provides for unfettered access within a half mile of communities to fight fires.Summit Countys biggest roadless areas are in the Lower Blue adjacent to the Ptarmigan Wilderness and in the Upper Snake River Basin, between Keystone and Arapahoe Basin.Once adopted, a roadless rule would give the areas a quasi-wilderness status, limiting development and use of the areas.Local Forest Service officials have said they are managing the land under the existing White River National Forest plan, which maintains the status quo in roadless areas.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For detailed information on Summit County’s roadless areas and basin maps showing the areas subject to the plan, go to: http://tinyurl.com/dxxzqq.