ASPEN - Pitkin County commissioners found themselves in the odd position this week of differing with the U.S. Forest Service on what level of protection is appropriate for roadless areas within Colorado's national forests.
The county, preparing to comment on the proposed 2011 Colorado Roadless Rule by Thursday's deadline, drafted a letter endorsing the so-called alternative 4 - an option that puts 2.6 million acres of Colorado's roadless forest lands in an "upper tier" that provides higher levels of protection than did a federal roadless rule adopted in 2001.
The county supports alternative 4 "because it includes the largest amount of 'upper tier' lands, and results in the most desirable level of protection for conserving and managing roadless areas on our National Forest Lands in Colorado," reads the letter.
Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen and Pitkin County, urged commissioners to rethink that position at a meeting Tuesday.
The Forest Service's ability to move forward with much of its planned habitat improvement and forest regeneration work in areas around the Roaring Fork Valley will be compromised under alternative 4, Fitzwilliams said.
The agency is prepared to embark on a 10-year project to revitalize winter range on 45,600 acres of the White River National Forest, but plans for 20,000 to 25,000 acres would be shelved if the upper-tier protections of alternative 4 are applied, he told commissioners.
The protections don't just prevent the construction of roads; they don't allow the cutting of trees, Fitzwilliams said.
"Our goals of restoration and wildlife habitat would be extremely limited - to just prescribed fire," he said.
While the agency intends to use fire for some of the habitat work, it would not be able to cut trees to create a fire line in upper-tier roadless areas, Fitzwilliams said. "We may not ever be able to burn in these areas," he said.
"We could not cut a line around a prescribed fire," the forest supervisor confirmed Wednesday. "I'm not going to drop that match."
Felling trees to improve the health of aspen stands would also be out of the question, as would hand cutting or the mechanical treatment of oak brush and pinon-juniper stands in upper-tier areas.
The first phases of the habitat work in the White River National Forest are slated to take place late this summer and early in the fall. About 200 acres of oak brush, pinon and juniper will be thinned in the Avalanche Creek area, east of Filoha Meadows in the Crystal River Valley. That project will improve habitat for bighorn sheep. Another part of the first phase will be treatment on Arbaney Mesa, about a half-mile east of the summit of the popular Arbaney-Kittle Trail at Holland Hills near Basalt.
Those actions don't mean the agency will be constructing roads, Fitzwilliams said, but the preferred roadless rule option from the agency's perspective is alternative 2. It puts 562,000 acres in an upper tier.
Alternative 4 came out of public comment on a previous iteration of a proposed roadless rule for the state; it was put forth by Trout Unlimited and the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Fitzwilliams said. Its proponents may not realize it could hamper rather than promote habitat conditions, he contends.
Among other options, alternative 1 reflects the provisions of the 2001 federal rule for Colorado, while alternative 3 means no roadless rule for the state.
County commissioners, after concluding their discussion with Fitzwilliams, were reluctant to drop support for alternative 4.
"To me, there's a great difference between 2.6 million acres and 562,000 acres, so I lean way big, on the millions side," said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
Commissioners suggested the letter advocate the ability of the Forest Service to give administrative approval for tree cutting to accommodate prescribed burns.
The county's letter also urges making Colorado roadless areas unavailable for new gas and oil leases and invalidating "gap leases" - those issued after the 2001 federal rule was enacted - if they are in violation of the 2001 rule.
The proposed 2011 Colorado Roadless Rule removes from the designated roadless areas some 8,300 acres that are within existing ski area permits or are identified for ski area development or expansion, but the county does not support the removal of those lands from the roadless inventory.
"Removal may encourage development and/or increase impacts to wildlife and other roadless area resources in locations where an expansion of terrain may be possible without roads," the county's letter reads.
The 2011 Colorado Roadless Rule comes a decade after the federal roadless rule was adopted in 2001, just before then-President Bill Clinton left office. It prohibits commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
Colorado started developing its own rule for managing roughly 4.2 million acres of roadless forest in the state after court challenges left the fate of the federal policy in doubt. The preferred alternative offers higher protection than what's offered under the Clinton-era rule for the 562,000 acres, or roughly 875 square miles.
It's expected that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will sign a final version by the end of the year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.