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Governor tweaks roadless protection plan

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Gov. Bill Ritter asked federal land managers for an “insurance policy” Wednesday to protect 4.1 million acres of roadless national forests in the state from development while the courts and government agencies decide how the land should be used.

Ritter also said he was making minor changes in a petition former Gov. Bill Owens submitted last year that sought permanent protection for most of the roadless areas in Colorado.

Ritter asked the U.S. Forest Service and its parent agency, the Agriculture Department, for interim protection for the Colorado lands roadless areas while their future is debated.

He also asked that some areas in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests be classified as roadless, with limited exceptions for temporary roads and other activities associated with coal exploration and development.

Ritter also said he wanted the state Department of Natural Resources and Division of Wildlife to be able to work with federal land managers on any proposed activity within the roadless areas.

The debate over the use of the land began under the Clinton administration, which banned new roads on nearly 59 million acres of national forests nationwide.

The Bush administration overturned that rule and told states to submit petitions suggesting how the land within their borders should be managed. Owens submitted Colorado’s petition in November, accepting a task force’s recommendation that most of the 4.1 million acres in question remain roadless.

Ritter’s announcement left most of Owens’ recommendations intact.

But the fate of the petition and the forests are unclear because a federal judge in San Francisco has reinstated the Clinton-era ban on new roads. A timber company has appealed.

Environmental groups, timber companies, and oil and gas developers have been watching closely as Ritter reviewed Owens’ recommendations.

Environmentalists were quick to react, saying Ritter’s plan weakens the 2001 rule that is already in place.

“Resubmitting the old petition with minor modifications ignores what is needed now to best protect the national forests in Colorado,” said Robert C. Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign.

Dave Peterson, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited, said Ritter’s proposal fixes some problems in Owens’ petition but it also leaves too much leeway for road-building for timber and grazing.

“There is no restrictive language and it would allow roads in roadless areas,” Peterson said.

Brian O’Donnell, public lands director for Trout Unlimited, said Ritter’s petition leaves hunters and fishermen at risk of losing the protections they have now.

Tom Troxel, spokesman for the Colorado Timber Industry Association, said the industry has no intention of exploiting the new rules. He said the Forest Service would still decide where timber could be cut.

“I would expect the Forest Service to be present on that, and there will be few exceptions,” he said.

A spokesman for the Colorado Mining Association did not return a call seeking comment.

Ritter praised the Colorado Roadless Area Review Task Force, whose recommendations formed the basis of the Owens’ petition. But said he is concerned a court could eliminate roadless protections that now in place, so he wants an “insurance policy” in case that happens.

“I am supporting the vast majority of its recommendations. However, there are a limited number of matters that require some modification,” Ritter wrote in a letter to the two federal agencies.

“The 2006 petition, as modified by this letter, recognizes Colorado’s commitment to protecting our invaluable wild places and at the same time allowing for limited activity where unique circumstances exist,” Ritter wrote.

“This issue is extremely important to Colorado’s hunters, anglers and citizens in general. With the modifications set forth in this letter, I look forward to working with you to promulgate a Colorado Rule which will protect Colorado’s roadless areas,” he wrote.


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