Local roadless areas focus of national debate | AspenTimes.com

Local roadless areas focus of national debate

Before the ink dried on the new management plan for the White River National Forest, a national debate roared to life Wednesday and engulfed a key part of the initiative.

About 175 members of Congress from across the country announced yesterday they would introduce a bill to try to ensure protection for 58.5 million acres of roadless forest throughout the country.

Colorado Congress members Diana DeGette and Mark Udall, both Democrats, signed on as sponsors of the bill, along with numerous others.

Republican Congressman Scott McInnis, whose district includes the White River National Forest, wrote a letter along with 43 other members of Congress urging President Bush to block any attempts to approve the “Roadless Area Conservation Rule.”

They claimed the initiative to protect roadless areas that was taken by President Clinton in his last days in office violated environmental law and proper procedures of approval. A federal judge has blocked implementation of the act.

McInnis and his allies want to make sure the roadless protection act isn’t approved administratively. Instead it must go through a lengthy review process, they claim.

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While that debate heats up in the nation’s capital, Colorado environmentalists are hinging hopes on the legislation to ultimately protect more roadless areas in the White River National Forest than the Forest Service was willing to levy.

“From rural counties on the West Slope to urban centers on the Front Range, Coloradoans strongly support the protection of wild lands,” said Ted Zukoski of the Land and Water Fund. “But the Forest Service isn’t listening.”

In the new forest management plan released Tuesday, the Forest Service said about 31 percent of the 640,000 acres considered roadless would be managed to retain their wild characteristics. That includes wilderness designation for 82,000 acres. That special protection prohibits motorized and mechanized uses in addition to banning road building.

Another 367,600 acres were classified as eligible for some level of development.

“Roadless areas in this group have the most potential for intensive developments and the most potential for impact on the undeveloped character of roadless areas,” the forest plan said.

Richard Compton of the White River Conservation Project and Jamey Fidel of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop said that wasn’t enough protection for those special lands.

Compton noted that one of the roadless areas not pinpointed for protection is the top of Basalt Mountain. A large section of the mountain is designated for “resource production – wood products.”

Compton noted that a timber sale planned on Basalt Mountain in the mid-1990s was dropped by the Forest Service due to opposition.

“Whether they’ll pursue another timber sale or they’ll forget it because it gets so many locals up in arms, I don’t know,” he said.

Conservationists hope the Forest Service doesn’t get the chance to offer a timber sale on places like Basalt Mountain.

Zukoski said a coalition of environmental groups will try to block implementation of the management plan for the 640,000 acres of roadless area in the White River. In fact, he hinted that the conservation groups feel the Forest Service underestimated the amount of roadless terrain in the 2.3 million acre forest.

He stopped short of saying the coalition will appeal the roadless-area section of the new forest plan.

“You bet we’re going to fight very, very hard on any site-specific decisions that degrade these scenic places,” he said.

The fight may drag on for years. Zukoski said the bipartisan effort to get the Roadless Area Conservation Act approved is off to a good start, with roughly 175 supporters. A majority vote of 218 gets a bill approved in the U.S. House.

But legislation would also face scrutiny by the senate and it must be approved by President Bush.