Environmentalists fear for state’s roadless areas
March 31, 2006
Several Colorado environmental groups are crying foul that the U.S. Department of Agriculture could break its promise of interim protection for national forest roadless areas.They say the USDA might allow mineral development in roadless areas in the state’s national forests before the Roadless Area Task Force makes a recommendation later this year about how those areas should be managed. The task force is holding meetings around the state to gather public opinion about roadless area management so the state can recommend to the USDA a management strategy for the state’s roadless wild areas on Forest Service land. The task force will meet in Glenwood Springs on June 21. Environmentalists are saying the Forest Service is acting against a statement USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey wrote in a New York Times editorial last year saying the USDA is “providing interim protection to roadless areas, pending the development of state-specific rules provided for in our 2005 rulemaking.”The Bush administration last year rescinded a Clinton-era rule that protected more than 58 million acres of national forest roadless areas across the country. A new rule left it up to the states to help determine the fate of their roadless areas. Colorado’s Roadless Area Task Force was Gov. Bill Owens’ mechanism for determining what should happen to the state’s roadless areas, and it won’t be finished with its work until later this year. In a telephone news conference Friday, Environment Colorado field organizer Matt Garrington said federal officials announced roadless areas would remain wild until a rule can be made for Colorado, but projects requiring roads are able to begin now, possibly disqualifying some areas for permanent roadless status. One such area, said Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop Director Sloan Shoemaker, is a roadless area surrounding Thompson Creek south of Carbondale in the White River National Forest where gas leases already exist. The area was put up for lease in 2004 amid protests from the town of Carbondale and environmentalists. The Bureau of Land Management denied the protest, and an appeal is now pending. “We feel we’re being duped here, double-crossed,” Shoemaker said. But while environmentalists claim they were misled into believing roadless areas would be protected from road building for now, the issue may boil down to how Rey’s term “interim protection” is interpreted. In January, the Forest Service issued an “interim directive” governing the management of roadless areas until July 2007. Interim protection, in the Forest Service’s view, means decisions about road building projects in local roadless areas are made in regional and national offices, not at individual national forests like the White River National Forest, headquartered in Glenwood Springs. The directive gives the Forest Service chief in Washington, D.C., the authority to approve some proposed road construction projects in roadless areas until local forest management plans can be revised. It also gives the regional forester in Golden the authority to approve road-building projects for mineral development. Before such a road-building project is approved, it may require an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. White River National Forest spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo couldn’t say Friday how many gas leases are in the Thompson Creek area, what their status is or who owns them. Shoemaker said the public can’t take the Bush administration’s promise of roadless area protection at face value.”The only thing that’s going to hold the administration accountable is if the public continues to speak out,” he said. Also speaking against the potential for road building on Friday was Brian O’Donnell of Trout Unlimited, Carbondale Mayor Pro Tem Scott Chaplin and roadless activist Janine Fitzgerald, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango. Chaplin said the town of Carbondale opposes gas leasing in the Thompson Creek area and the expansion of a nearby gas pipeline. Drilling near Carbondale would be detrimental to the community as it becomes a “Silicon Valley” for the use of renewable energy, Chaplin said.