Forest Service’s role in gas leasing focus of debate |

Forest Service’s role in gas leasing focus of debate

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs Correspondent

A White River National Forest official is taking issue with a contention by environmental groups that natural gas leasing in the Thompson Creek roadless areas violates the forest’s management plan.”It’s not exactly a true statement. That’s not what our forest plan says,” Dan Hormaechea, the WRNF’s acting deputy supervisor and a chief architect of the plan, said Thursday.Environmental groups on Wednesday filed an administrative appeal of the gas leases. They contend the WRNF forest plan says that the U.S. Forest Service will uphold the national Roadless Area Conservation Rule and not allow leasing in roadless areas.But Hormaechea said the only applicable reference in the plan is to a guideline that says management of activities in inventoried roadless areas “should emphasize long-term maintenance of roadless characteristics.””It says ’emphasize.’ It does not say you can’t have the activities,” Hormaechea said.Steve Smith, a Glenwood Springs resident who is assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, questions whether the Forest Service is following its own guideline.He doesn’t think oil and gas development emphasizes maintaining roadless characteristics.Hormaechea said it’s a matter of opinion whether the Forest Service is any longer bound by the roadless rule imposed by President Clinton before he left office.”I don’t believe we’re under the Clinton administration roadless rule,” he said.Hormaechea noted that a Wyoming judge struck down the rule.Smith said if the roadless rule is out of effect, it’s only temporarily so, and possibly only in Wyoming. Environmentalists are awaiting a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that they hope will uphold the rule.In the meantime, they argue, the Forest Service should err on the side of caution and continue to manage roadless areas under the roadless rule.”We should hold on to these roadless areas until we really know their management standards, and plan for their long-term future,” Smith said.From Hormaechea’s standpoint, “the current thinking on the roadless rule is about as confusing as you can possibly get,” he said.Even as the legal outcome of the Clinton rule is being awaited, the Bush administration has proposed a roadless rule of its own. It would allow for roadless area management to differ from state to state, depending on the wishes of each state.In the meantime, Hormaechea is taking his guidance from the forest plan guideline.”Guidelines are not standards. Guidelines can be modified,” he said.And in fact, the guideline itself is going to be removed from the plan, following a recently completed review of appeals of that plan. Hormaechea said the Forest Service headquarters in Washington has ordered that the guideline be taken out because the issue of how roadless areas should be managed in the White River National Forest already is addressed in handbooks and other places.Hormaechea wasn’t aware offhand who had appealed that provision in the plan.Hormaechea said the Forest Service is aware of the roadless characteristics of the Thompson Creek area, and their importance. Some roadless areas there exceed 5,000 acres, which means that an environmental impact statement would have to be done before drilling applications could be issued in those areas, he said.At that point, the Forest Service could attach drilling stipulations, such as barring surface disturbances in certain areas.Dennis Webb’s e-mail address is