Colorado’s roadless forest plan to get review
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” As a federal advisory panel starts reviewing Colorado’s plan to manage about 4 million acres of roadless areas in national forests, calls are growing for the state to scuttle the proposal and stick with a Clinton-era policy that’s tougher than the policies of both the state and the Bush administration.
State and U.S. Forest Service officials in Colorado traveled to Washington for an open house Tuesday and a hearing Wednesday before the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee.
Last week, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement and rules for managing the roadless areas scattered across several national forests in Colorado. Public hearings starting Aug. 18 will be held on the rules and public comments will be taken until Oct. 23.
In 2001, President Clinton banned development in the roadless areas but a Bush administration policy opened those lands to potential development in 2005. The Bush rule was overturned by a federal court a year later. Colorado’s proposal would allow temporary roads to reach livestock grazing areas, expansion of existing coal mining and oil and gas leases.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter has pointed to all the legal wrangling in explaining why he is pushing ahead with a plan drafted during the administration of his predecessor, Republican Bill Owens.
“It’s a uniquely Colorado insurance policy in a legal environment that is extremely uncertain,” said Evan Dreyer, Ritter’s spokesman.
The state of Wyoming has revived its lawsuit against the Clinton-era policy and U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who overturned the policy in 2003, is presiding over the case. Whatever the outcome, the ruling likely would be appealed.
But environmentalists, hunting and fishing groups that supported Ritter during his 2006 campaign are urging him to withdraw the state plan because the Clinton-era rule adopted in 2001 offers more protection to the undeveloped forest land, which includes key wildlife habitat and pristine backcountry.
A letter signed by 14 Colorado conservation, hunting and angling groups and released Tuesday warned that “our wild forests are at risk due” if the 2001 rule isn’t applied in Colorado.
Twenty Colorado outdoor businesses asked Ritter in a letter last week to suspend adoption of a state-specific roadless plan “because it offers neither an ‘insurance policy’ nor a benefit to Colorado.”
The business owners said protecting the roadless areas protects their industry, which the Outdoor Industry Association estimates pumps more than $10 billion yearly into the Colorado economy and employs 107,000 people.
“I actually think it will be a lively give and take,” Chris Wood, chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited, said of the federal advisory panel’s meeting on Colorado’s plan.
Wood is a member of the panel appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. Speaking as a Trout Unlimited representative, Wood said he’s concerned about some of the exceptions in Colorado’s plan.
“I’m anxious to hear the state explain the significant number of exceptions,” Wood said.
Under Colorado’s plan, temporary roads would also be allowed for cutting trees to reduce wildfire risk and some land around ski areas would be removed from the inventory of roadless areas.
“We are comfortable and confident that we can resolve this in a way that preserves our initial understanding and intent for those areas to be kept roadless,” said Dreyer, Ritter’s spokesman.
A report released last week by the Pew Environmental Group says at least 97 natural gas leases approved in roadless areas while the Bush rule was in effect could go forward if Colorado adopts its own plan rather than apply the Clinton-era roadbuilding ban already in place.
The land, some of which has trails or roads, is generally remote and considered important for wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.
The 2001 roadless rule was passed near the end of the Clinton administration after more than two years of public hearings and 1.6 million comments. New roads were banned on about 58 million acres of the 192 million acres of forests nationwide.
Court challenges quickly followed. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule in 2001.
Two years later, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, Wyo., overturned the rule, saying the road ban illegally designated wilderness. Only Congress can set aside wilderness areas.
The Bush administration approved a policy in 2005 that potentially opened the land to logging, road-building and other development. States were given 18 months to petition the federal government to protect some or all the land. Colorado submitted a petition crafted by a state task force formed by the Legislature and Gov. Owens.
The Bush rule was tossed out and the Clinton rule reinstated in 2006 when U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte of San Francisco said the Bush administration didn’t conduct the necessary environmental reviews before adopting its policy.
Since then, only Colorado and Idaho have pursued their own roadless plans. The 2001 rule applies where states don’t have their own plans.
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