Roadless task force crafts recommendations | AspenTimes.com

Roadless task force crafts recommendations

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press

DENVER ” A task force started crafting recommendations Wednesday that eventually could form the basis of Colorado’s proposal for managing 4.1 million acres of remote national forest land.

A 13-member panel formed by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Owens has spent about nine months studying the different sites scattered among several national forests in the state and taking testimony from state and federal experts and residents across the state.

Hundreds of people have turned out for most of public hearings across the state. Colorado hunters, anglers, outfitters and environmentalists, along with at least 18 cities, towns and counties, have called on the task force and Owens to seek protection for all the land.

The task force plans to submit a proposal by mid-September recommending whether the land declared off-limits to development under the Clinton administration should still be protected.

“It’s hard, it’s slow,” said Russell George, head of the state Department of Natural Resources. “But the group has held together very well.”

George, the task force chairman, said the group intends to give the public a chance to comment on its suggestions before a final version is sent to the governor.

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The sites were among 58.5 million acres nationwide covered by a ban on road-building, logging and other activities but potentially opened to development by the Bush administration last year. Some of the sites have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.

Task force member Rep. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said in the beginning, some of his colleagues supported maintaining a ban on new roads on the land while others endorsed leaving the decision up to managers of the individual forests. Now, Penry said, he sees the group melding those positions: support for a statewide standard with exceptions that give forest managers some flexibility.

“I think people are willing to work toward the common goal of agreement. It’s in both sides’ interests,” Penry said. “Nobody wants to pave over the national forests.”

That doesn’t mean task force members agree on everything. A proposal to defer to individual forest management plans on wildfire prevention drew impassioned responses from members who prefer a statewide plan to keep new roads from being built.

“We’ve spent 10 months listening to what the public wants,” said David Petersen of Durango, the roadless coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “This is too broad and wide open and works against what the public wants.”

Rep. Diane Hoppe, R-Sterling, replied that she believes the panel’s charge was to make Colorado’s policy fit within existing forest management plans.

The ban applied to about a third of the country’s 192 million acres of national forest lands. The so-called “roadless rules” was published eight days before Clinton left office in 2001 but was two years in the works. The government held 600 public hearings and received 1.6 million public comments.

The Bush administration’s policy was drafted after a federal judge in Wyoming threw out the Clinton-era rule in 2003.

The federal government gave governors 18 months to petition to protect some or all the land. The Colorado task force will forward recommendations to Owens, whose proposal goes to a federal advisory board and then to the agriculture secretary, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Off-road vehicle users argue that public lands should be open to everybody and note that some of the land already has trails and roads. The Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, which says it represents 200,000 Coloradans, fears that leaving the areas designated as roadless is a precursor to making them wilderness areas, which are off-limits to motorized vehicles.

Some of the land under review by the task force will be offered for oil and gas leasing at a Bureau of Land Management auction in Denver Aug. 10. The areas are among 2.2 million acres that were identified as eligible for development under individual forest plans when the road-building ban was lifted.

A small amount of the Colorado land included in the ban had oil and gas operations on it, said Melody Holm, program manager for leasable minerals for the regional Forest Service office in Denver. She said the Forest Service is trying to determine how much of the 4.1 million acres of roadless areas have been declared suitable for energy development under current forest management plans.

The Bush administration has approved petitions from the governors of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to bar commercial logging on a total of 555,000 acres of remote forest land in their states. The governors of Oregon, California, Washington, and New Mexico have joined in a lawsuit arguing that the Bush administration improperly replaced the rule.

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