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Region rallies for roadless areas

Adorned with a sticker, Bart Weller, of Glenwood Springs, listens to speakers at the Colorado Roadless Area Review Task Force meeting Wednesday evening at the Hotel Colorado. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)
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Scores of residents from western Colorado jumped at the opportunity Wednesday night to urge a state task force to preserve roadless areas in the White River National Forest.People as diverse as an outfitter from Rifle to environmentalists from Aspen coalesced to rally in support of roadless areas. About 250 people attended the Roadless Areas Review Task Force meeting in Glenwood Springs, many of them wearing stickers that said “Roadless Yes.”A common theme among speakers was the need to preserve parts of the National Forest that have no roads so that future generations can enjoy the priceless solitude of wild lands. Sylvia Wendrow of Carbondale told the task force that Colorado’s mountain valleys, like the Roaring Fork, are rapidly changing.”All I see is urbanization, wall to wall,” Wendrow said. “Will there be any Wild West to visit here?”The task force formed earlier this year after President Bush said he wanted states with national forests to determine the fate of their roadless areas. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and the Legislature appointed a 13-member task force to review the issue, take public comment and make a recommendation. The governor will review that advice and turn in a final request to the federal government later this year.The White River National Forest, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley and stretches from Rifle to Summit County, has 84 areas the Forest Service officially designates as roadless. They total 640,000 acres, or about one quarter of the total forest.In its latest forest management plan, the White River supervisor’s office advised converting about 82,000 of those acres into wilderness, providing them with protection that would prevent any type of development and mechanized use. The other 558,000 acres would be managed in different ways, with varying degrees of protection. In the Forest Service plan, some of those areas would remain free of roads while others would be open to temporary road building for extraction of gas and timber.White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson told the task force that 27 percent of inventoried roadless lands have been identified as potentially suitable for oil and gas development. A 1993 forest planning process determined what parts of the forest were eligible for gas extraction, she said, but it’s becoming more visible now that high gas prices are spurring more exploration. Most of the forest identified for gas development is south of Rifle, Silt and New Castle.Outfitter Jeff Mead of Rifle said gas development in the Mamm Peak Roadless Area south of Rifle threatens to chase wildlife from the area and ruin his business.”Some of the oil and gas companies will say it doesn’t disturb [wildlife],” Mead said. “I disagree. I’ve been there for 20 years.”The Mamm Peak area provides some of the best habitat in the state for deer and elk, and “probably has more bear than any other part of the state,” Mead said. But when gas companies clear chunks of forest for well platforms and cut roads to provide access to them, it chases the wildlife away. Mead said some of his clients, mostly return customers, started hunting elsewhere. His clients dropped from 40 to 18 in recent hunting seasons.”Nobody wants to hunt next to a gas rig,” Mead said.The diverse groups speaking in support for protection for roadless areas included: Realtors for Wilderness, a committee of the Aspen Board of Realtors – The board’s president, Ed Foran, said the committee believes preservation of roadless lands is important to continued economic prosperity of the region. Wilderness Workshop, the oldest and most prominent conservation organization in the valley – Director Sloan Shoemaker said the group performed its own analysis of the 2.3 million acres in the White River National Forest and found that 1.1 million acres deserved roadless designation rather than the 640,000 acres the Forest Service officially designated. MaroonCorps, an Aspen-based organization for conservationists in their 20s and 30s. Spokesman Aron Ralston said decisions about management of roadless areas should be based on “sound science” such as impacts on wildlife. Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association for the state’s ski industry. The organization supports protection for the state’s roadless areas, with one caveat: It wants the roadless designation eliminated when it falls within established ski area permit boundaries in the White River National Forest, according to spokesman Alan Henceroth. The mayors of cities and towns in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Michael Hassig, mayor of Carbondale, noted that the councils of Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle and Silt all support protection of the 640,000 acres of roadless areas. Rifle’s board was considering a resolution at the same time the roadless task force was meeting.Dennis Larratt of the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition provided one of the few dissenting views on roadless protection. He accused most speakers of “hypocrisy” for opposing opening of roadless lands even though most drove to the meeting and used lumber for their homes. Areas shouldn’t be closed, he said, because of the demand for gas and timber.The task force was strictly on a fact-finding mission. Members questioned some speakers, but they didn’t take any position or vote. They will deliberate later this summer to arrive at their recommendation for the governor.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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