Ruling on roadless areas
Colorado’s latest roadless rule mixes opinions

Colorado’s roadless areas, such as the HD Mountains near Saul’s Creek, could gain more protection under the state’s newly proposed Roadless Rule. However, some conservation groups say the state’s rule doesn’t go far enough and could open up thousands of more acres to oil and gas drilling, and logging./File photo

by Missy Votel

After nearly 10 years of twists and turns, Colorado’s Roadless Rule appears to be coming into the homestretch. While the effort is being lauded by state officials, including Gov. Bill Ritter, some conservationists say the rule doesn’t go far enough in protecting the state’s 4.2 million acres of roadless lands.

“This is simply a better rule for Colorado,” Ritter said upon release of the revised rule on April 6. “Our roadless areas will get stronger protections, and we will get the targeted flexibility we need to address Colorado’s unique circumstances, such as the pine beetle epidemic, the ski industry and Western Slope coal mines.”

The current rule concludes nearly a decade of legal wrangling over protection of the nation’s remaining roadless forests. It began in 2001 with President Bill Clinton’s decree to protect 58 million acres of roadless public land. The move was promptly overturned by his successor, George Bush, who left it up to states to decide.

Appeals resulted from the 2001 federal rule, with conflicting rulings. While a judge in Wyoming for the 10th Circuit, which includes Colorado, found Clinton’s 2001 ruling illegal, a 9th circuit judge in California upheld it. As a result, the case headed back into appeals, led by conservation groups and the Obama administration. Final arguments wrapped up this spring, with a decision anticipated late this year.

Meanwhile, the State of Colorado embarked on its own version of the roadless rule in 2005. After a year of extensive public input and scoping, Colorado submitted its roadless rule to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, in late 2006. It was then kicked back to the state for revisions based on concerns over too much allowance for logging. The new and improved draft was released last fall, with the final version submitted last week to Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for approval.

Thus far, the Obama Administration appears receptive. “The Colorado petition … provides strong protections for roadless areas,” Vilsack stated in a news release last week. “I’m confident that working with the governor and the public, we will craft a final rule that is, on balance, at least as protective of roadless areas – and preferably more protective – than the 2001 Roadless Rule.”

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which issued the rule, said it has incorporated more than a dozen significant changes into the revision. According to the DNR, these include: protection for 400,000 more roadless acres than in the Clinton inventory; closure of a loophole that would have allowed development in roadless areas; and increased flexibility for wildfire protection and disease mitigation, ski area expansion and coal mining.

Under the state’s earlier version, logging would have been permitted deep in roadless areas for the sake of wildfire mitigation. However, the new rule would allow it only within 1.5 miles of a community’s boundaries, with exceptions for insect and disease management. Furthermore, the 2006 rule also allowed for road exemptions for oil and gas drilling and ranching, which now have been removed.

However, some conservation groups say the state did not go far enough in its revisions.

“We still have a lot of concerns,” said Ryan Demmy-Bidwell, director of the Durango-based Colorado Wild. “There have been a few minor improvements, but in virtually every respect, it’s a significant weakening of the 2001 rule.”

Chief among Bidwell’s concerns is what exactly constitutes a community’s boundaries. “The rule doesn’t define what a ‘community’ is, leaving it up to the definition of the Forest Service. Is it a 150-acre ranch out in the middle of nowhere? Or the city limits?”

He also said incorporation of Colorado’s rule would open up several thousand acres of roadless land to oil and gas. Although the 2001 rule would prohibit new roads for oil and gas retroactively, the state’s ban on new roads for oil and gas would not go in effect until approved. As such, the more than 100 so-called “gap leases” that were permitted since 2001 would be exempt from the ban. “All those leases between 2001-10 would suddenly predate the new rule,” said Bidwell. “We would risk opening up tens of thousands of acres of Colorado backcountry.”

He said Colorado Wild and other conservation groups have pushed for a more “science-based” approach to the road ban, which would set specific criteria for logging, defensible space and so on. There have also been recommendations not to include ski areas in the exemption. The proposed state rule would exempt 90 acres within Durango Mountain Resort’s permit boundary, well north of the resort. While Bidwell said the possibility of expansion into this area is remote for the foreseeable future, many ski areas, including DMR, have recently expanded without new roads. “Ski areas have shown they can expand without building new roads,” he said.

Perhaps the most glaring problem with the Colorado rule is the fact that acceptance of the 2001 rule could make it a moot point. “It’s still curious to some of us why the state continued to move forward when the federal rule hadn’t been settled,” said Bidwell. He said if the federal rule is upheld, Colorado could proceed with its own rule if it gets approved, although it would be “much less necessary.”

In addition, he said there are concerns over applying a different set of rules in each state to land that, essentially, is owned by all Americans. “There’s a real concern about managing a natural resource in every state in the West based on economic drivers rather than the national good,” he said. “It undermines the protection U.S. citizens asked for time and time again, not to mention what Colorado citizens asked for time and time again.” •

 

 

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