ASPEN - Gov. Bill Ritter in Aspen Thursday night defended his position on roadless lands, which has been under fire from environmentalists.
Ritter said his administration believes it is best to make "carve-outs" in roadless areas so there can be vehicular access to water-system infrastructure and powerlines. Colorado has about 4.5 million acres of roadless public lands.
"Our process protected 95 or 96 percent of all roadless areas in the state but made carve-outs," Ritter said.
His administration was working on a state-specific roadless position while President Bush was still in office. Once President Obama took office, his secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, asked Colorado to resubmit its position. More public comment was collected, and the state's final proposal is being drafted for federal government review.
Ritter commented on his team's work on roadless issues while he spoke in Aspen at a conference on the bark beetle epidemic hosted by a local nonprofit organization, For the Forest.
"It is still our intention to do as much as we can to protect as much we can in terms of roadless," Ritter said. "And certainly those places where there is infrastructure that could be damaged in case of fire, to think of that as exceptions that need to become part of the rule.
"I don't want to prejudge that because we haven't fully written it," Ritter hastily added.
The governor, a Democrat, faces a re-election test next year in what could be a tough contest again former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis.
Ritter's roadless policy has alienated some of the environmental community, which is otherwise a solid part of his constituency. While it is doubtful environmentalists will flee to McInnis, their support of Ritter might be lukewarm.
Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based environmental group, urged members in its December newsletter to weigh in on the Colorado roadless debate.
"Federal protections for Colorado's roadless areas are likely to be replaced by weaker state ones in the coming months - a potentially problematic setback for public lands throughout Colorado," Wilderness Workshop wrote in its newsletter.
Ritter's position still has "serious flaws," including exceptions for coal mining, logging and ski area expansion, Wilderness Workshop said. Natural gas extraction could also occur in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale, depending on a ruling in a federal lawsuit.
"State conservation groups, including Wilderness Workshop, continue to press the [Colorado] Department of Natural Resources to eliminate the loopholes in its roadless rule, but time is running out," the nonprofit's newsletter says.
The top U.S. Forest Service official in the five-state Rocky Mountain Region credited Ritter for his approach while speaking at the For the Forest conference. Regional Forester Rick Cables said "there's a great ideological argument raging in the country about roadless" lands.
"Certain organizations believe the only way to protect roadless is with a single national rule, period," Cables said. Another school of thought says states should propose their rules because they are familiar with the "nuances" that are necessary.
Cables said it is "wise policy" to provide access in roadless areas to water infrastructure, powerlines and for ski area expansion while still preserving up to 98 percent of roadless lands.
"I have to give the governor credit - at the end of the Bush administration, when there was a lot of pressure to finish the rule before those guys left town, Gov. Ritter said it's too important to have a durable, lasting solution to try to do it in the 11th hour of an administration," Cables said. "This is a big deal. This is a policy."