Colorado Roadless Rule to visit town

Durangoans can weigh-in on Colorado’s controversial roadless rule next week. The Forest Service will host an open house on June 8 in Durango to “increase public understanding” about the proposed rule.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was originally signed into law in 2001 to provide protection for the nation’s 60 million acres of designated roadless areas. Under the rule, the areas were strictly off-limits to new roads and natural resource extraction. In La Plata County, it created safe havens on more than 600,000 acres in the HD Mountains, along Missionary Ridge and in the Hermosa Creek drainage on the state’s largest roadless area.

However, the tides shifted in the summer of 2004 when the Bush Administration announced a “modification” to the rule that shifted responsibility for roadless area protection to state’s governors. In response, then Colorado Gov. Bill Owens convened a roadless area protection task force and started drafting new guidelines for roadless areas. Colorado forged ahead in spite of a U.S. District Court’s overturn of the Bush modification in 2006. And in-mid April of this year, the Forest Service released the draft Colorado rule, which would render the 2001 rule moot.  

Colorado hopes to take a tiered approach to roadless area protection. The rule bans road-building or tree cutting on nearly 4.2 million roadless acres in Colorado and goes on to grant “higher protection” to 560,000 acres, including the 148,000-acre Hermosa Creek Roadless Area. However, it also contains several exceptions. Logging would be allowed to mitigate the threat of wildfire in the urban interface and existing ski areas would be removed from the roadless inventory.

The conservation community has taken a dim view of the new plan for Colorado. Ted Zukoski, of the environmental law firm Earth Justice, argued that Colorado roadless already has “gold standard” protection under the 2001 Roadless Rule and the new proposal would weaken that.

“The proposed Colorado roadless rule has damaging loopholes,” he said. “It will allow 20,000 acres of our state’s remaining wild forests to be scarred with bulldozers for coal mining. And it doesn’t end the threat of oil and gas leasing on leases pushed through by the Forest Service after 2001.”

Nine other Colorado conservation groups – including Durango’s Colorado Wild and San Juan Citizens Alliance – have come out against the new rule and allege that the 2001 rule offers better protection.

However, Durango residents can decide for themselves. On June 8, the Forest Service will hold a public meeting on the proposed rule from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the Durango Recreation Center. Although the agency will not take public comments at the session, the meeting is designed to help locals develop informed written comments. The deadline for written comments is on July 14 and they can be submitted online at anytime prior to that date.

Uranium lawsuit gets the green light  

The fight against the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill will go forward. Last week, a Denver district judge rejected an attempt by state radiation regulators and Piñon Ridge’s owner to block a legal challenge to the mill.

Energy Fuels Inc., a Toronto-based uranium and vanadium mining company, received approval for Piñon Ridge in January. The company plans to site the mill in the middle of Western Colorado’s uranium belt on 1,000 acres of privately owned land in Paradox Valley, not far from the Dolores River. The facility would be the nation’s first in a quarter century and located close to the only other operating uranium mill in the country, the White Mesa Mill in Blanding.

However, Piñon Ridge is facing a variety of challenges. First, the Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance has filed suit alleging that the State of Colorado failed to adequately assess the uranium mill’s real impacts. Second, SMA and Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste have asked the EPA to withhold its approval of the mill’s construction plan until Clean Air Act regulations can be brought up to speed.

Energy Fuels and the State of Colorado responded by asking the court to throw out the SMA lawsuit. Last week, opponents of Piñon Ridge got some good news when Denver District Judge Brian Whitney refused. His decision cleared the way for the legal challenge to proceed.

“For too long, state radiation regulators and the uranium industry have had a cozy relationship that has caused long-term contamination to continue unabated here on the Western Slope and on the Front Range,” said Hilary White, executive director of SMA. “That questionable relationship continues today as both Energy Fuels and the state try to argue Colorado residents have no seat at the table in trying to protect our clean air and water from uranium mining and milling. Thankfully, the court has rejected those arguments.”

Katz family buoys Durango schools

Local philanthropists are working to head off shortfalls in education. Durango School District 9-R will be receiving a $200,000 boost from the Marc and Jane Katz Family Fund, which was started by the founders of Mercury Payment Systems.

9-R will use the majority of the funding to support the district following continued cuts to K-12 education from the State of Colorado. Nearly all of the $200,000 will go to: supporting post-secondary options for 9-R students; small learning community trainings for Durango High School; helping to open a School-Based Health Center at Florida Mesa Elementary School; and supporting the band and music programs throughout the district.

The Durango Foundation for Education Excellence will use the remaining $25,000 to support enhancements to reading and writing instruction and intervention in all 9-R schools. DFEE Director Bitten Skartvedt commented, “DFEE is very grateful for the Katz’s tremendous generosity, and their focus on education as the foundation of a healthy community.”  

National Trails Day set for Saturday

Durangoans can give something back to the local trails network this week. Locals have two opportunities to buff Durango singletrack on June 4, National Trails Day.

First, the Friends of the Mountain Parks, City of Durango and Trails 2000 have scheduled a trail work day in Overend Mountain Park for Saturday. The overall project purpose is to improve drainage, define trail edges, re-vegetate and prepare an area for future tree planting. Interested community members should meet at the Leyden Street trailhead at 9 a.m. A BBQ and potluck will follow after the morning’s events.

Volunteers are also welcome to help work on the section of Colorado Trail adopted by the San Juan Mountains Association on June 4, and can meet at the Junction Creek trailhead at 8:30 a.m. Work projects will vary from moving large rocks to trimming small branches.

– Will Sands




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