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Roadless area petition awaits decision

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Changes in the political and legal landscape could mean changes on the ground in terms of how roadless areas are managed in the White River National Forest and elsewhere in Colorado.

Advocates on all sides of the issue are awaiting a decision by Gov. Bill Ritter on whether to stand by a petition submitted to the federal government by his predecessor, Bill Owens, on what level of protection should be provided to more than 4 million roadless acres in the state. The White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen/Snowmass and the Roaring Fork Valley, has 640,000 roadless acres.

Owens incorporated the recommendations of a state task force in his petition.

“We’re still deciding about whether or not to amend that original petition that was put forward,” Ritter said in an interview with the Post Independent in March.

Some roadless area advocates say the task force’s approach doesn’t go far enough to protect these lands. Supporters of the task force say it had broad-based representation and shouldn’t be ignored.

Ritter, a Democrat, succeeded the Republican Owens as governor in January. Colorado’s task force recommendations were drawn up under a process outlined by the Bush administration’s 2005 roadless rules. But a federal district court judge in California last fall ruled the administration erred by throwing out 2001 roadless protections implemented under the Clinton administration.

Owens went ahead and petitioned the government under other federal administrative rules, and because of the possibility the 2005 rules later could be reinstated in the courts.

Ritter could leave the petition unaltered. He said he also could ask that Colorado roadless areas be managed under the 2001 rule even if the California judge’s ruling is overturned. He has called for interim protections for those areas for now.

Steve Smith, a Glenwood Springs resident, served on the task force and is assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society. Smith would be satisfied if Ritter withdrew the petition containing its recommendations.

“From my perspective the goal has always been to get in place the protections that are provided under the 2001 roadless conservation rule,” he said. With the California court ruling, which Smith believes will stand, “we think that goal has been reached,” he said.

Others question how some of the same task force members who signed on to its recommendations are willing to abandon them.

“Now what we’re hearing is it wasn’t a good process; throw that all out,” state Sen. Jim Isgar, a Democrat from the Durango area, said during a meeting with agricultural interests earlier this year at the state Capitol.

Isgar said the task force’s balanced representation gave it credibility, and it made good recommendations regarding roadless land.

“We started from the premise that all of it should be protected, and that’s why most of it still is,” he said.

The task force recommended exceptions in some areas for uses such as skiing and mining. State Rep. Kathleen Curry, appearing at the same meeting as Isgar, said she worried that ignoring the task force’s recommendations could jeopardize grazing access. She said those recommendations also provided for a compromise allowing for limited coal mining access followed by proper reclamation in roadless areas in the North Fork Valley, which is near Paonia.

Curry, D-Gunnison, and Isgar are prominent lawmakers from Ritter’s own party. They are the respective chairpersons of the committees overseeing agriculture and natural resources within the House and Senate.

Curry has signed on as a sponsor, and Isgar as a cosponsor, of a resolution that calls on Ritter to support the task force’s recommendations. The Senate on Friday put off a final vote on the resolution and it is now scheduled for Monday.

While undecided on the issue, Ritter said he supported the task force’s efforts. He said it sought input from around the state and was responsible in its recommendations.

Smith believes the group’s work has value, even if the 2001 rule is followed. He said that rule also allows for responsible accommodations to be made for purposes such as grazing, energy development, and protection from wildfire. He said the public input received during nine task force meetings helped to highlight how important it is to Coloradans to generally protect roadless areas, while allowing for some carefully crafted exceptions.

“All those things are important to keep in mind when implementing roadless policy, so I don’t think the task force’s work is lost at all,” he said.

Besides Smith, the task force included two other Garfield County residents – Jim Lochhead, who headed the state Department of Natural Resources under former governor Roy Romer, and Russell George, who was DNR chief under Owens and now heads the state Department of Transportation for Ritter. George had chaired the task force. Ritter said he probably would consult with George before deciding on how to proceed on the roadless areas.


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