White River’s roadless areas gain protection
December 4, 2006
Some of the only public lands in the Roaring Fork Valley leased for natural gas exploration have received an extra layer of protection, according to conservationists.A federal judge in California ruled last week that roadless lands within national forests cannot be leased for natural gas drilling unless there is no disturbance to the surface.The federal government has sold numerous leases in roadless areas of the White River National Forest to gas companies since 2001. In some cases, there was a condition for no surface disturbance. In other cases, no such condition existed.Some leases in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale allowed surface disturbance, according to Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation group. Conservationists objects because gas exploration could destroy roadless qualities.Shoemaker applauded the judge’s decision: “The roadless areas are going to remain intact,” Shoemaker said.Conservation groups are researching how many leases will be affected in the White River and other national forests in Colorado. The White River, which surrounds Aspen, has 640,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas, including 109,000 in Pitkin County. That doesn’t include wilderness lands, which have special protection from all mechanized activities.Even with the new ruling, a company can still pursue gas extraction in roadless areas but must undertake procedures like directional drilling, where wells are drilled from pads outside the roadless areas.In some cases, Shoemaker said, that will force the companies that acquired the leases to reconsider operations. It may be too expensive for them to pursue the gas with a condition for no surface occupancy or disturbance, he said. In those cases, leases may be withdrawn. The same judge who made last week’s ruling also ruled on Sept. 20 that President Bush must reinstate the roadless rule President Clinton enacted before he left office. The 2001 Roadless Rule prohibited activities like drilling for gas, mining and building new roads on about 58.5 million acres of roadless land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.President Bush eased roadless restrictions shortly after he took office and rescinded Clinton’s roadless rule in 2005.When the Clinton roadless rule was reinstated this fall, the Bush administration interpreted that to mean no new activities could be undertaken in roadless areas, but that decisions made between 2001 and the ruling could stand.Conservation groups countered that the ruling was retroactive – no activity should have been approved in roadless areas throughout Bush’s tenure.U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth LaPorte’s ruling says roadless lands should have been managed as though the Clinton roadless rule was always in place.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.