EPA raises concerns about Colorado’s roadless plan | AspenTimes.com

EPA raises concerns about Colorado’s roadless plan

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Exceptions in Colorado’s plan to manage some 4 million acres of roadless areas in national forests are worrisome because of the potential environmental impacts, a federal agency says.

The regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency wrote in recent comments to the U.S. Forest Service that it’s concerned about “the considerable breadth of exceptions” to logging in roadless areas to prevent wildfires and stem the spread of bark beetles.

The exceptions to roads and activity in those areas have also drawn criticism from environmental, hunting and angling groups that want to see the 4.1 million acres in national forests across the state remain off-limits to development.

The draft environmental review “should include clear guidelines and commitments for how impacts from exemptions will be avoided, minimized and mitigated” on roadless areas, according to EPA officials.

“What the EPA is saying here echoes almost precisely what the sportsmen community has been saying from the start,” said David Petersen of Durango, a staffer with Trout Unlimited and a member of the statewide task force that developed the plan.

State officials didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

The Forest Service, in conjunction with state officials, is writing a draft environmental impact statement to implement Colorado’s plan to manage the roadless areas. The land is among 58.5 million acres nationwide declared off-limits to development in 2001 toward the end of the Clinton administration.

After the Clinton-era rule was overturned by a federal judge, the Bush administration approved a rule potentially opening some of the roadless areas to development. States were allowed to petition some or all of the land, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, making the final decision.

In another twist, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco reinstated the 2001 road-building ban, saying the Bush administration didn’t conduct the necessary environmental reviews when it adopted its policy.

Several states are following the 2001 rule. Colorado, though, submitted its plan, which was drafted by a task force appointed by the Legislature and former Gov. Bill Owens.

Gov. Bill Ritter, who took office last January, resubmitted the plan after his staff reviewed and recommended some changes. Critics say Colorado should withdraw its roadless petition because the 2001 road-building ban offers more protection.

Colorado’s plan provides exemptions, including temporary roads for logging to fend off wildfires and bark beetles. It also would remove about 10,000 acres of forest land leased by ski areas from the inventory of roadless areas and allow limited exceptions for a coal mine in western Colorado.

“It would basically mean once the rule’s implemented, it would be the governing regulation in Colorado,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, spokesman for a coalition of Colorado conservation groups.

Roadless areas in Colorado would have less protection than in other states, Kolbenschlag added.

Ritter, though, has said the state plan is an insurance policy because of ongoing legal disputes. A decision is pending in federal court on Wyoming’s revival of its lawsuit challenging the Clinton-era rule.

State officials say they’ve also reserved the right to withdraw the roadless petition if unhappy with what the federal government does.

A federal advisory panel that reviewed Colorado’s proposal last year recommended clarifications to ensure that the need for temporary roads for wildfire prevention or other activities is balanced with maintaining “roadless area values and characteristics.”

The 2001 roadless rule was passed after more than two years of public hearings and 1.6 million comments. About a third of the country’s 192 million acres of national forest lands was affected. The bulk of the land is in the West.

Some of the areas protected as roadless have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.

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