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Roads less traveled?

(Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Roadless lands in the White River National Forest are like the first runner-up in a beauty contest.These areas – 640,000 acres all told in the sprawling White River – are stunning enough to grab attention but always overshadowed by wilderness areas.Wilderness contains geographic features so spectacular that they garner special protection that prohibits vehicles and all other forms of intrusive human use. People think of the Maroon Bells when they think of wilderness. Visitors can hike, ride horses and fish in officially designed wilderness areas, but little else. These areas offer solitude and a place where nature reigns.The fate of roadless lands isn’t so certain. They were left behind when wilderness boundaries were first carved into the nation’s public forests in the 1960s and occasionally expanded over the next four decades. Instead of the Maroon Bells, think of a place like Basalt Mountain. East of the old logging roads that climb up its slopes from Missouri Heights and spread like fingers near the mountaintop are thousands of heavily forested hillsides that stretch toward Ruedi Reservoir. The Basalt Roadless Area has stunning features like the red sandstone spires that form Seven Castles, but nothing quite spectacular enough to qualify it as wilderness.

Now a Colorado task force is trying to decide how to manage lands recognized as roadless in the U.S. Forest Service’s official inventory. President Clinton passed a roadless rule in 2001 shortly before he left office. It granted special protection to 58.5 million acres throughout the country. Activities like drilling for natural gas and logging were prohibited.President Bush rescinded the Clinton roadless rule in May 2005. He said local residents should have a say in how federal lands in their areas should be managed. He wants the governor of each state with national forests to forward a recommendation to the secretary of agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service, by the end of the year.A 13-member task force was appointed in Colorado to help Gov. Bill Owens form a recommendation about the 4.4 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in the state. The task force visited each of the 11 national forests in the state to hold public hearings. A June 21 hearing in Glenwood Springs attracted nearly 200 people. Some were invited to provide testimony; others took advantage of a public comment period.The overwhelming majority lobbied to prevent construction of new, permanent roads. “I’ve never heard anybody say anything bad about roadless areas,” said Jeff Mead, a hunting outfitter from Grand Junction with a permit to operate in the Mamm Peak Roadless Area south of Rifle. He was one of the speakers invited to testify.During public comment, longtime Aspen resident Jim Ward urged the task force to place society’s needs for wild lands ahead of pressures for development. “You have to save it for future generations,” he said.Only a handful of speakers offered alternative views. Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said preservation of some roadless lands is important – as long as it is balanced with other needs and demands. “Public lands are multiuse lands,” he said.

Dennis Larratt, director of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, accused people who want to prevent road construction for gas extraction and logging of being hypocrites. Those same people calling for protection need those resources in their daily lives, he said.The Colorado Roadless Areas Review Task Force is scheduled to form a draft recommendation July 19 and forward it later in the summer after a short public review period.For some of the 84 roadless areas in the White River National Forest – which stretches from Rifle to Summit County, and surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley – protection is virtually guaranteed, by topography if not by regulations. The North Independence Roadless Area, for example, stretches from Hunter Creek Valley on the outskirts of Aspen to the Midway Pass trailhead up toward Independence Pass. Its steep slopes and thickly forested lands north of Highway 82 make it impossible to develop.But other roadless areas around the Roaring Fork Valley are much more accessible – and inviting for activities like logging or gas extraction. The Aspen Times took a look at three of those roadless areas – Red Table Mountain, Basalt Mountain and Thompson Creek. On the following pages, we try to describe what’s at stake.


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