The roadless rule debate: assessing impacts and picking sides

Photo by Christopher Tomlinson—Additional areas would be open to timber harvesting if the proposed Colorado roadless map is approved. Trees damaged by bark beetles have turned to a rust color in this photo.



Photo by Gretel Daugherty—An Encana drilling rig rises from the valley floor in the Mamm Creek Field south of Rifle near Mamm Peaks in this 2005 photo.



Photo by Dean Humphrey—One of Encana’s five-acre pads, which has more than 50 natural gas wells that can be drilled directionally.



Photo by Dave Buchanan—An elk hunter in a roadless area near Maroon Bells, southwest of Aspen, in a photo taken in October 2009.



Photo by Christopher Tomlinson—The proposed Colorado rule would allow ski areas to expand into areas that the federal rule bans.



Photo by Dean Humphrey—The West Elk Mine may not be able to expand into adjoining roadless areas because of the federal rule.



Photo by Christopher Tomlinson—ATVs and snowmobiles would not be banned from roadless areas, but the federal rule confuses some riders and Forest Service officials.



The intricacies of the fight over the roadless rules, both the federal rule and Colorado-specific proposal, are notoriously complicated, but some impacts can be discerned, and local groups and industries have had no problem choosing sides:

Timber industry

The proposed Colorado rule would allow greater flexibility in removing trees damaged or killed by bark beetles than the federal rule, and because its map of the state’s roadless areas differs slightly from the federal one, some areas that the 2001 rule closes to timber harvesting would be open under the Colorado plan.

“There are areas that have roads and a history of timber harvesting but are classified as roadless,” said Tom Troxel, director of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, noting the proposed Colorado rule would take some areas out of the 2001 roadless inventory and put others in. He cited the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison and San Juan national forests as having the largest discrepancy because they were further behind other forests in updating their forest plans when the rule was issued in 2001.

Troxel’s organization did not support the roadless rule when it was issued in 2001 and still does not today.

“It seems to us that the Colorado rule is a step forward because it allows a little more of a closer look at how to manage these roadless areas,” he said. “To be honest, our preference would still be that those decisions on roadless areas were made at the individual forest level. There are lots of forest decisions we don’t need a national rule for, and I think roadless is one of those.”

Oil and gas industry

Between when the 2001 federal roadless rule was repealed by the Bush administration in 2005 and when it was reinstated in 2009, the administration sold leases for oil and gas development on areas that the suspended rule had designated as roadless. Those leases, called “gap leases,” are expected to stand under the proposed Colorado rule because it was completed after the leases had been issued. They would be nullified if the older, federal rule is enforced in the state, though their fate is not yet entirely clear.

“The Colorado rule can’t change the terms of a lease that’s been issued. That’s a legal issue that should be decided by the courts,” said Bob Randall, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We just can’t know whether they’ll stand.”

Another major event happened in the oil and gas industry between 2001 and now: the development of horizontal drilling technologies that allow companies to drill into dozens of sometimes quite distant deposits from a single pad, significantly decreasing surface disturbances, including roads.

Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana’s Colorado operations, called this technology a “game-changer” that makes roadless regulations “not so much an issue for us anymore.”

Given this technological change, he said the company has no position on the debate between the federal and proposed Colorado rule.

Conservation

The conservation concerns raised by road building include permanent impacts on increasingly limited wildlife habitat, protecting watersheds that provide water to cities, and preserving recreation opportunities in often pristine and remote landscapes. The consensus among conservation advocates is that the 2001 federal rule does a much better job of conserving those features.

“Our assertion is that the 2001 rule actually provides more protection for roadless areas than the Colorado plan. It would be great if we got a Colorado plan that provided that protection, but we’re not there yet,” said Peter Hart of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

He said the “upper-tier” stipulation included in the Colorado rule proposal would mean places such as Mamm Peaks would receive less protection than they would under the federal rule.

Groups such as the Wilderness Society have criticized the proposal’s exemptions for the expansion of coal-mining operations and ski resorts, both of which would not be allowed under the federal rule, and its expected validation of the “gap leases” for oil and gas operations. It contends only 12 percent of areas designated roadless under the federal rule would have the same level of protections under the Colorado proposal.

“Colorado deserves the same level of protection as the rest of the country,” Earthjustice’s Michael Freeman said.

Matt Reed, of the Crested Butte-based High Country Citizens’ Alliance, noted the federal rule does not create wilderness areas. Rather, it still allows activities such as snowmobiling and leaves a lot of trails open to motorized recreation.

His main concern is the difference in acreage covered by the two roadless plans. The Colorado plan, he said, could allow more intense industrial development.

“It could certainly diminish the recreational possibilities. The recreating public might not want to recreate next to a gas rig,” he said.

Skiing

“The one-size-fits-all national rule doesn’t fit very well in Colorado,” said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents the state’s ski and snowboard industry. She says the industry supports the Colorado-specific rule because “other states in the country don’t have the same issues,” including the massive ski industry and bark beetle infestation.

The proposed Colorado rule, which Mills helped craft as part of a 13-member task force, would allow ski areas to expand into the 8,000 acres where ski-area-permit boundaries and areas designated as roadless under the federal rule overlap. The federal rule bans new lifts and expansions into those adjacent roadless areas, instead requiring ski-area expansions take place only on private land.

Mills said that decision was based on “incorrect assumptions” because “so many ski areas in Colorado are in national forests and other public land. The Colorado rule looks at what’s on the ground and decides what makes sense.”

None of the individual dozen or so ski areas that overlap with roadless lands have a particularly large amount of overlapping acreage, she said.

Mining

 

The operations of three underground coal mines in western Colorado, including the West Elk Mine outside Somerset, could be impacted as soon as this summer if they are prevented from expanding into adjoining roadless areas because of the federal rule’s ban on roads, which are needed to build pads and methane vents, in those areas.

North Fork mines account for about 40 percent of the state’s coal, and the area has been home to coal mining for nearly a century, according to Stuart Sanderson, executive director of the Colorado Mining Association. He echoed many industry representatives’ complaints that the federal rule amounts to a “one-size-fits-all approach that has been forced down the throats of Western states.”

The exception the Colorado roadless rule makes for coal-related activities in the North Fork area understandably makes the state rule much more appealing to the coal industry.

Hunting

 

“My feeling is they need to stay the heck off the Forest Service land that is designated as roadless because that was designated for a reason,” said Jeff Mead, who has operated Mamm Peaks Outfitters in the Mamm Peaks roadless area on Battlement Mesa for the past two decades.

Despite the perception that the roadless rule blocks off swaths of land from humans, it does not itself prohibit any human activities other than those requiring the building of roads. Hunting would be allowed just as much as it is now. And the fact roadless areas are relatively free of the noise and other disturbances that come with roads makes many of these areas prime game habitat.

“There’s a lot of animals up there. That’s one of the reasons it was designated roadless,” he said, noting Mamm Peaks is wintering and calving grounds for elk, which the traffic and noise levels brought by roads can disturb. “Once the road starts in, it’s there. It marks the land.”

That area appears to be protected right now. He said companies seeking the natural gas deposits of the area are currently only drilling deep under it from adjacent private property.

Mead said he is very much against anything that would allow road building in Mamm Peaks or any other designated roadless area, but added he supports the Colorado rule.

Hunters in general hold diverse opinions on the roadless rules.

“Our membership seems to be on all sides of the issue,” said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Blake Henning. “We haven’t taken a firm position, but we do support the state process and state-based processes in general.”

All-Terrain Vehicles

The federal rule would also not do anything to prohibit all-terrain-vehicle or snowmobile use in roadless areas. But the lingering perception that it might is enough to turn off some ATV enthusiasts.

“The whole terminology has people so confused,” said Steve Chapel, president of the Western Slope ATV Association.

He acknowledged the federal rule does not “lock us out,” but said Forest Service officials contradict each other about motorized trail construction. Some have said there will be no new motorized trails, and others say there can be.

“It’s a bureaucratic mess,” Chapel said.

“It doesn’t need any more protection than what it’s already getting,” he said, citing work his group has done to maintain what he calls the best ATV trails in the state on parts of Grand Mesa.

“We believe decisions like this need to be made locally. One-size-fits-all philosophy just doesn’t work,” Chapel said.


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