Durango braces for impacts to roadless areas
Bush administration decision could create loud local echoes

A Forest Service road approaches the HD Mountains Roadless Area east of Bayfield. Last Monday, the Bush Adminstration announced a roadless area rule change. Conservationists say the proposal will open designated roadless to unprecedented logging, mining and drilling. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

New national policy is expected to hit hard locally. Conservationists are bemoaning a recent move that they say eliminates protection for designated roadless areas. The announcement by the Bush Administration could have major impacts locally in places like the HD Mountains, Missionary Ridge and in the Hermosa Creek drainage.

On Monday, the Bush Administration announced that it would be modifying the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Conservationists charge that under the "modification," none of the 60 million acres of designated roadless areas would be protected from new roads and natural resource extraction. They also say that the announcement is an attempt to "short-circuit" legal appeals advocating the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that are pending in courts.

A view of things to come? A gas pump east of Durango works endlessly early on
Tuesday morning./Photo by Todd Newcomer

During a Monday press conference, Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, stated, "This is the biggest single giveaway to the timber industry in the history of the national forests. The day the administration's proposal takes effect, every acre of the remaining untouched 30 percent of the national forests will lose protection from logging, mining and oil drilling."

In the Durango region, the announcement affects approximately 600,000 acres including in the HD Mountains, the Florida and the Hermosa Roadless Areas. According to Jeff Berman, executive director of the Durango-based Colorado Wild, all of these pristine areas are now effectively open to industry.

"There's no longer any protection for roadless," he said. "Any gas and oil company or timber company can propose to go into those areas and there will be nothing to prevent them."

Drilling for natural gas is currently proposed for a portion of the HD Mountains Roadless Area. Of the 300 new coalbed methane wells proposed for the region, more than 100 have been pitched for the HD Mountains. As part of the proposal, 60 miles of new roads would be built inside the designated roadless area.

A different take on the new roadless rule
The U.S. Forest Service sees flip-side of announcement
The Forest Service takes a less emotional view of last Monday's announcement and views it more as a procedural change. In fact, the agency says that the move is actually an attempt to end legal deadlock and encourage conservation of roadless areas.

On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the rule change at the Idaho State Capitol. She stated,A0"Our actions today advance President Bush's commitment to cooperatively conserving roadless areas on national forests. The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress, nor certainty for communities."

After the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was finalized in 2001, it was litigated in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. In June 2003, a federal court struck down the 2001 roadless rule, concluding that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act. However, appeals of this decision have yet to make their ways through court.

Thurman Wilson, assistant manager of the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango, said that the decision essentially changes who is responsible for regulating roadless areas.

"It changes the level of who can make a decision from a local level to a national one," he said.

Wilson added that he does not expect many impacts on the local forest because there are currently not proposals outside the HD Mountains for projects within roadless areas.

"Here on the San Juan National Forest, we hadn't been proposing anything or had any proposals forwarded to us," he said.

There is currently a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule and details and guidelines for filing comments are available at www.roadless.fs.fed.us. The Forest Service will issue a final decision after it evaluates public comments.

Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens' Alliance, commented, "It certainly could affect some of the HDs plan, where they've proposed wells and compressors within the roadless area. This would effectively pave the way for the oil and gas companies."

On another section of the San Juan National Forest, the announcement could also have an impact. Though it currently in legal limbo, the Missionary Ridge Timber Sale had proposed logging dead and dying trees on thousands of burned acres just northwest of Durango. One alternative for the proposed timber sale called for logging and road building within the Florida Roadless Area. Berman and Pearson charged that the area could now be fair game for logging.

In addition, there is now potential that the Hermosa Creek drainage could be opened up for natural resource extraction. While there are no currently plans for new roads or logging in the area, they are now in the realm of possibility, according to Pearson.

"They could come into the picture, and the Forest Service wouldn't be prohibited from authorizing them now," he said.

Conservationists said that the most destructive piece of Monday's announcement deals with future administrative control over roadless areas. The Bush administration's new plan would give state governors the option to petition the Forest Service to recommend how they would manage these roadless areas.

"That means extraordinarily little in terms of any continued protection for roadless areas and the critical environmental resources they hold," Berman said.

Pearson added, "These are national lands that belong to all Americans, and they're essentially turning them over to state governors to control."

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson agreed with this sentiment. On Monday, he announced that he would do his best to defeat the measure. "This is a very bad decision for the environment," Richardson said. "The Federal Government and the Forest Service are basically taking a hike and not a healthy hike. The Forest Service is basically walking away from environmental protection."

Richardson added that he would be digging in his heels on the issue. "I'm going to be very difficult with the Forest Service," he said. "I will support the environmental groups if they go to the courts and try to stop this."

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was originally adopted in 2001. Berman and Pearson concluded by saying that at that time the Forest Service received 1.7 million official comments, five times more than in any other federal proposal. More than 95 percent of the comments were in favor of protection of roadless areas.

Berman noted, "It's surprising that given its popularity, the Bush administration brazenly decided to throw it out."

Pearson added, "I don't know why they think having this huge anti-environment agenda makes sense politically."






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