OUT: Sunday Column December 07, 2008

Roadless protection efforts get reprieve; what does that mean?

The on-again, off-again and never less-than-confusing state of roadless area protection across the West took another baffling turn this week.

And then Colorado got a reprieve.

California Magistrate Judge Elizabeth LaPorte, who in 2006 invalidated a 2005 Bush administration rule that in turn had nullified a 2001 roadless decision from the Clinton White House, this week unexpectedly reduced by a third the number of Western states affected by her earlier ruling.

In a moment ominously reminiscent of Roseanne Roseannadanna, La Porte said never mind and decided her earlier opinion affected only those states in the 9th Judicial District plus New Mexico, which happens to be in the 10th Judicial District.

Which means the other 10th District states, including Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, revert to the 2005 Bush roadless ruling.

Which means nothing at all.

Remember, the 2005 ruling by Wyoming District Judge Clarence Brimmer called baloney on the ’01 Clinton roadless policy and that means there isn’t an official roadless policy to follow in states that don’t have policies of their own.

At least, Colorado is luckier than its neighboring states of Utah and Wyoming, which have no roadless proposals.

Colorado’s roadless proposal, which formally won’t be policy until it’s approved by the Forest Service, was given an open-ended reprieve Friday for fine-tuning. That decision came down from Forest Service chief Mark Rey, who said his agency won’t allow any projects “that are inconsistent with the Colorado roadless petition” until the state’s pending roadless rules are adopted.

And if we can’t trust the Bush administration to be fair and upfront with natural resource decisions, who can we trust?

Well, since it’s been made perfectly clear that extending the petition deadline would put any decision in the lap of the soon-to-be (but not soon enough) Obama administration, there’s your answer.

Since it was first hammered out through a year-long task force process, the Colorado roadless proposal has come under criticism on several sides in that it doesn’t offers enough protection for enough acreage.

Those concerns, say state officials, will be addressed in constituent meetings, the aim being to assuage anyone unhappy with the proposal’s current shape.

“This once again shows why it’s so important to get the Colorado rule completed — so we can take the 2001 rule out of the legal minefield it’s caught in,” said Mike King, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Rey’s unofficial pact with Colorado is the only assurance this state has that the 4.4 million acres of roadless areas will have any interim protection at all.

Not that we would ever doubt the intentions, honest or otherwise, of the Bush administration, but that’s not much to go on.

Considering how the current resident of the White House has been pushing other federal agencies to emphasize development over the environment, Jan. 20 can’t come too soon.

Wildlife habitat — forests, streams and riparian areas — need protection, a point made clear when every Division of Wildlife employee urged the roadless task force to protect every categorized roadless area.

There are intertwined concerns, of course, fire management, for one, whether it’s pre-emptive controlled burns or putting a chainsaw to a burning tree.

If you’ve recently made the drive across Berthoud Pass to Winter Park and down the upper Colorado River valley, the extent of the beetle kill makes wildfire not a question of if but of when.

Ranchers, coal miners and ski area operators, too, are concerned how a roadless ruling might affect their livelihood and deprive them of access.

However, you’d be hard put to come up with any instance where legitimate, temporary access was denied.

The delay in sending the proposal to Washington is an attempt at encompassing all concerns with the caveat there is no one-size-fits-all.

Not everyone is going to be happy with the final result but at least we’ll have the chance to make it right.


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