Local roadless areas in peril
Rule change opens pristine forest to resource extraction

SideStory: A second chance for roadless areas: Task force holds local hearing Friday

A trail usage sign stands at the entrance to a Forest Service road accessing the HD Mountains on Tuesday morning. The Bush Administration recently reversed a Clinton mandate, eliminating protection for designated roadless areas in favor of resource extraction. As a result, local places, like the HDs, are in danger of feeling the impacts./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Will Sands

Several of Southwest Colorado’s most pristine areas are sitting in the crosshairs. The Bush Administration made a recent move that eliminated protection for designated roadless areas in favor of oil and gas development and mining and logging. As a result, local places like the HD Mountains, Missionary Ridge and the Hermosa Creek drainage are in danger of feeling the impacts.

Last summer, the Bush Administration announced that it would be modifying the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Conservationists have charged that under the “modification,” none of the nation’s 60 million acres of designated roadless areas are protected from new roads and natural resource extraction. In the Durango region, the announcement affects approximately 600,000 acres including in the HD Mountains, and the Florida and the Hermosa Roadless Areas. The modification took effect in August of this year.

“The roadless system is really the remains of what was once an entire roadless continent,” noted Brian O’Donnell, the Durango-based director of Trout Unlimited’s Public Lands Initiative. “Locally, we’re fortunate enough to have some of the best roadless areas in Colorado. We also have some of the only ones at lower elevations like the HD Mountains.”

That critical habitat and pristine forest could go on the chopping block under the “modification,” according to O’Donnell. Although the San Juan National Forest has made no changes in its management of roadless areas, the HDs, Hermosa Creek and Missionary Ridge are all in danger of development.

“We have threats from mining, oil and gas drilling, and logging and road building for transportation needs,” O’Donnell said. “Here the most urgent case is oil and gas, and some areas are facing imminent development pressure like the HDs.”

Amber Clark, Public Lands Coordinator with San Juan Citizens Alliance, noted that there are already 2,711 miles of authorized roads on the San Juan National Forest and at least that many miles of unauthorized roads. With that in mind, she viewed the creation of more roads as nonsense.

“Think about that number and increasing that mileage,” she said. “There already aren’t enough resources to manage the roads that are out there.”

A pump jack pulls natural gas from the ground with the HDMountains in the background. A governor-appointed task force will take the public’s pulse on roadless area protection this Friday at Tamarron. It will be the only local meeting on the pressing issue./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Like O’Donnell, Clark pointed to pressure from industry to open roadless areas to development. The result of drilling, mining or logging in these areas could be disastrous, she added.

“Roads dramatically impact the way water is filtered through the ground, and that all flows into local communities,” Clark said. “Loss of wildlife habitat is another big issue. People come from states away to enjoy hunting, fishing and wildlife recreation. All of that will be severely impacted. There are short-term benefits to resource development, but that’s nothing compared to the long-term economic benefit of people visiting these wild places.”

Clark added that this is not an issue of motorized against nonmotorized recreation, as motorized recreation is permitted inside roadless areas. Instead, the question is over recreation in general, which would be severely impacted by logging or gas drilling.

“This is about building new roads for industry oil and gas and timber, and things that are bad for all citizens, no matter what type of recreation they enjoy,” she said.

While the rule change stripped protection for roadless areas, state governments do have some recourse. The Bush administration’s new plan does give state governors the option to petition the Forest Service to recommend how they would manage these roadless areas. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has taken a proactive approach to the responsibility (see sidebar).

“Now it’s up to governors to protect roadless areas,” said O’Donnell. “On the positive end, Colorado is more organized on this than any state in the West. The governor is trying to make a good faith effort to engage agencies and the public.”

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was originally adopted in 2001, and at that time the Forest Service received 1.7 million public comments, five times more than for any other federal proposal. More than 95 percent of the comments were in favor of protection of roadless areas. Now, roadless area protection is starting over from scratch, according to O’Donnell.

“The negative side is, we’re starting all over again,” he said. “Under Clinton, we already had public hearings in Colorado and citizens weighed in strongly in favor of roadless area protection. Now we have to do it all over again.” •



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