Colorado roadless debate revs up in D.C. |

Colorado roadless debate revs up in D.C.

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs correspondentAspen, CO Colorado
The view of Clear Fork Roadless Area could change as the government considers management rules for thousands of similar tracts. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times file)

Colorado’s natural resources chief sought to make the case Wednesday in Washington, D.C., that a state proposal provides the necessary flexibility for managing its roadless areas.Meanwhile, a Glenwood Springs resident also went to the nation’s capital this week, but to argue that a 2001 rule that is now the law of the land better protects roadless areas.Harris Sherman, executive director of state Department of Natural Resources, and Glenwood resident Steve Smith, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society, went to Washington to speak about Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s roadless proposal before a federal advisory panel.We anticipate the panel will favorably recommend the Ritter petition and then take it to the next step, which is where there will be formal rulemaking by the United States Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture,” Sherman said.

Smith said that, judging from decisions by the panel in the past, it may very well endorse the Colorado petition or make some compromise recommendation. The hearing on the petition is scheduled to continue Thursday but it isn’t expected to issue a recommendation this week.At issue are how to manage 4.1 million roadless acres in Colorado, including about 640,000 in the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen/Snowmass and the Roaring Fork Valley.This week’s hearing is only the latest of a number of legal and political twists and turns regarding roadless management. In 2001, the Clinton administration issued rules protecting roadless areas across the country from development. However, the Bush administration in 2005 imposed its own rules that could allow for road construction in some areas.That policy let states petition the federal government over how to manage roadless areas. Former Gov. Bill Owens last year approved a petition that a citizen task force had drawn up.After Ritter took office this year, he stood by most elements of that petition and submitted it to the federal government, despite a California court ruling that overturned Bush’s policy and put the Clinton rule back in place.

Smith said Ritter was able to submit the petition under an administrative procedure separate from the Bush policy’s roadless petition process.Smith was part of Colorado’s roadless task force. But he’s among some task force members who say that now that the 2001 rule is back in effect, it’s the best approach for managing the state’s roadless areas.”We have a roadless rule. There’s no need to go through all that struggle to create another one,” he said.Smith and other conservationists prefer the 2001 rule because it makes no exceptions to keeping roadless areas roadless. But Sherman argues there are some limited exceptions that make sense, and that’s what Colorado’s measure would allow.”We need to have some small flexibility,” he said.

Some of these exceptions would include building temporary roads for wildland firefighters who are trying to protect communities, and for things such as maintaining water diversion facilities or repairing structures related to grazing operations, Sherman said. Such roads would have to be closed and obliterated afterward, he said. State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, also served on the roadless task force.”I was pleased that Governor Ritter stuck to the core elements of the task force’s recommendations,” Penry said.He believes there is widespread support for protecting roadless areas while also allowing rare exemptions for things such as firefighting. He doesn’t see big differences in the views of varying sides on the roadless issue, and thinks Ritter’s petition offers a compromise that seeks to eliminate roadless management uncertainties in Colorado that have resulted from court rulings elsewhere.Sherman said it could take 15 to 18 months to implement the state’s proposal. For now, the Clinton rule protects its roadless areas. Even if a court ruling invalidated that rule, Colorado roadless areas would receive interim protections Ritter requested as part of his petition process, Sherman said. If approved, the petition rules would supersede the Clinton rule, he said.

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