Coal exemption from roadless proposal debated

Accommodations for coal mining in the North Fork Valley are a point of contention in a newly proposed U.S. Forest Service roadless rule for Colorado.

The proposal, released today for a 90-day public comment period, is designed to protect some 4.2 million roadless acres in Colorado. But it allows some exemptions including for temporary road-building on 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley to install methane vents associated with underground coal mining.

The provision would allow for expansion of existing mining operations.

Another exemption is for temporary roads for logging and other fuel treatments to reduce wildfire danger within a half-mile of communities. The proposal also would eliminate existing ski areas from the state’s roadless inventory.

Rick Cables, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, noted that the coal exemption applies to a North Fork Valley industry that generates 2,200 direct and indirect jobs. But Ted Zukoski of the environmental law firm Earthjustice said the exemption “will allow 20,000 acres of our state’s remaining wild forests to be scarred with bulldozers for coal mining, a dirty energy source.”

He said the proposal also doesn’t end the threat involving oil and gas leases issued since the institution of the 2001 national roadless rule.

That rule’s future is unclear due to conflicting court rulings. Some conservation groups continue to argue it’s stronger than the one being sought by Colorado.

The state began pursuing its own roadless initiative in 2005. It submitted a revised petition of its proposed rule to the Forest Service last year, leading to the Forest Service’s current proposal.

Mike King, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said in a press conference this morning that the Forest Service proposal will provide the protections Coloradans expect for roadless areas, while carving out some narrowly drawn exceptions.

“So we think this is the balance that we’re looking for,” he said.

The Forest Service hopes to make a final decision on the Colorado rule late this year.


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