CARBONDALE - New rules designed specifically for the management of 4.2 million acres of roadless lands in Colorado got a mixed reception from observers Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall as well as some sportsmen's organizations praised the Colorado Roadless Rule reached after seven years of negotiations between the state government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But a coalition of conservation groups said the state-specific rules don't go far enough to provide protection. They want Colorado to stick with the national 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which has been upheld despite legal challenges.
"It makes sense that national forest lands be protected with a national rule," said Peter Hart, a staff attorney with the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
Colorado was one of the few states that opted to work on its own rule, which was allowed by the George W. Bush administration, rather than follow the 2001 national rule drafted by the Clinton administration. The final environmental impact statement for the final Colorado Roadless Rule was released Wednesday by the state and federal governments.
The Colorado rule places 1.2 million acres of the state's national forests into an "upper tier" of protection. Another 3 million acres are in a lower tier of protection. The rule goes into effect in 30 days.
State and federal officials touted the rule as protecting lands yet providing flexibility in some areas for economic development and public safety. The law allows logging to reduce wildfire danger in parts of the forests closest to cities and towns. It also allows more flexibility for expansion of ski areas and construction of methane venting vital to expand coal mines in the North Fork Valley near Paonia. In addition, the rule adds 409,500 acres that weren't covered by the 2001 national rule.
Hart countered that the Colorado rule removes 459,100 acres where the state and federal governments felt roadless characteristics have been compromised. Wilderness Workshop and five other conservation groups in western Colorado released a statement Wednesday contending that three-quarters of the state's roadless lands will be managed to a weaker standard than if the 2001 national rule was followed.
"For the most part, roadless areas in the Roaring Fork Valley aren't designated as upper tier," Hart said.
Assignation Ridge south of Carbondale and a portion of Red Table Mountain between Basalt and Gypsum received upper-tier designation. But Hart said those lands have been managed as wilderness by the federal government anyway because they are being examined for the highest protection. Therefore, their inclusion in the highest tier of the roadless rule doesn't offer any greater protection, he said.
Seven roadless areas in the Thompson Divide area didn't receive upper-tier protection, Hart said, though they are still recognized as roadless in the Colorado plan. Each of the seven is an area where the federal government has sold gas leases.
Local conservationists had hoped the Colorado Roadless Rule would clear up the status of leases that were sold after the 2001 national roadless rule went into effect. They contend the leases never should have been offered on roadless lands in Thompson Divide. They wanted this latest plan to provide clear protection.
"It's one of the unsatisfying things about this rule - that we're not getting (protection)," he said.
Instead, there's uncertainty about what the Colorado rule allows. In theory, it tightens regulations on oil and gas activity, Hart said. However, there are numerous exceptions to prohibitions on road construction, he said. One exception is to preserve existing rights, which oil and gas companies may claim applies to their leases, according to Hart.