Avoiding environmental regulation | AspenTimes.com

Avoiding environmental regulation

Dear Editor:

By now everyone is probably aware that BP’s Gulf Coast disaster was the direct result of the use of a Categorical Exclusion (CE) exempting BP from environmental regulations that would have prevented the situation. This is the same basic document used by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to circumvent environmental regulation in constructing the Rio Grande Bike Trail through the Rock Bottom Ranch Wildlife Preserve.

While some might debate the level of damage inflicted on this Division of Wildlife-designated Critical Wildlife Habitat, there is no doubt that there were significant negative impacts that could have been avoided by going through the required regulatory processes. Nobody will ever know the true extent of damage to the wildlife along this corridor because RFTA failed to conduct the required baseline wildlife study until after the trail had been under construction for a couple of months when the wildlife was long gone (CEs are very loose with little enforcement).

RFTA also chose not to close the trail in November as called for in the CE to protect the DOW-designated Critical Bald Eagle Winter Habitat, resulting in a drastic decline in their population along this corridor. You might have noticed more bald eagles around residential areas over the last couple of years. These were probably some of those displaced from their historic habitat along the bike trail, hungry and growing bold in their search for food. The fact that RFTA was able to use a CE (specifically restricted from use on projects that may significantly impact wildlife or wetlands) to pave through the wetlands of a wildlife preserve shows how easily high-dollar consultants can make a mockery of environmental protections.

Now Pitkin County Open Space plans to use its own local variety of environmental exemption to construct a similar trail through Critical Wildlife Habitat up the Crystal River. This time it will be even easier to disregard whatever meager rights wildlife might have. Open Space has its own homemade, easy open, ready-to-use “CE.” No mess, no fuss, no high-dollar consultants.

Assuming that the environmental expertise requirements for membership on the Open Space board are no more stringent than for membership on the RFTA board, one might question why we choose to trust the fate of something as important as our wildlife to a rather random group who may or may not have any level of expertise in environmental or wildlife sciences. Just by the nature of their positions they are likely to have more expertise in law or politics than in any of the sciences. Some of these people seem willing to claim whatever expertise necessary to further their own agendas. While most claim to be environmentalists, any mechanism to avoid environmental regulation is a rather suspicious tool for supposed environmentalists.

When I was in charge of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails some 20 years ago, it was well-known that high-volume bike trails are best located as close as reasonable to existing travel corridors to protect wildlife habitat. The worst situation is divergent transportation corridors spread across the entire valley floor, especially where they might restrict wildlife access to food or water. Our new Open Space folks appear to prioritize scenic views over the protection of wildlife, making this self-exemption even more frightening. While it’s difficult to criticize the enhancement of the tourist and recreation industries in an area that depends upon them, it’s also difficult to justify the exemption of such activities from environmental protections, especially in a local society so enthusiastic about encouraging environmental ethics in the rest of the world.

Let local leaders know that we want environmental protections. By following environmental regulations we can have beautiful trails without sacrificing our wildlife. Whether it’s oil, tourism, transportation, recreation, or whatever, if it can’t be done without dodging environmental regulations, we don’t need it! In addition to local leaders, you might also contact the CDOT Region 8 environmental coordinator, (970) 683-6251, and let them know that we don’t want them to be generous and lenient in their issuance of Categorical Exclusions and that we would like to see at least minimal enforcement of whatever weak conditions are set forth in them.

Jim Duke