DENVER - Federal officials Tuesday began conducting a series of public meetings to discuss Colorado's proposed plan for managing roadless areas in national forests.
Colorado is one of two states - along with Idaho - that has petitioned federal officials with plans for managing its undeveloped national forest land amid a lingering dispute over federal regulations for almost 60 million acres of untouched land across dozens of states.
Colorado's plan for managing about 4.2 million acres of its undeveloped national forest areas would more than double the amount of land suggested for higher protection than what was offered under a 2001 federal proposal.
That plan - adopted just before former President Bill Clinton left office - prohibited commercial logging, mining and other types of development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
A policy from the George W. Bush administration later began to allow commercial development on some of the protected land and required that state's petition for protection of roadless areas.
Elise Jones, executive director at the Colorado Environmental Coalition said the Obama administration has defended the 2001 roadless rules in federal court and repeatedly expressed support for protecting undeveloped areas.
Colorado's latest rules include a proposal that that offers more protection to about 562,000 acres. The "upper tier" protection stipulates that land wouldn't be subject to exceptions and would get the highest levels of protection.
Colorado's proposal set aside about 8,300 acres to allow for potential ski resort expansions. It also allowed for forest thinning near residential areas as a wildfire prevention technique.
The proposal also makes an exception for coal miners in western Colorado and allowed for the construction of methane vents.
The latest version of Colorado's roadless rules has been in development since 2005. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in April the changes reflect the interests of local residents and stakeholders.
A 90-day public comment period on the proposed rules and a draft statement of its potential environmental impacts opened last month. The open houses are for the public to discuss any new revisions or proposals in the roadless rules draft that opened to public comment.
The draft currently up for review came after 200,000 people submitted comments to federal and state officials.
But environmental officials say they offer too many exceptions, especially for oil and gas drilling.
If the Colorado rules are adopted, it would prohibit road construction on oil and gas leases issued in roadless areas. But the rule doesn't apply to leases that had been previously issued in roadless areas.
"It's also important to recognize that the adverse effects of roads extend far beyond their immediate footprint," said Barry Noon, a biology professor at Colorado State University.
Road construction would impact Colorado's watersheds and fragment wildlife habitats, Noon said.
The open houses start Tuesday at the U.S. Forest Service's regional office in Golden. Public meetings are set to continue across Colorado through June 16.