Roadless rule for Colorado released

The final version of a long-awaited rule governing roadless areas in Colorado’s national forest lands was released Wednesday.

When finalized a month from now, the rule will exempt Colorado from the federal roadless rule released in 2001 and allow exemptions from roadless protections in some locations in the state for activities such as ski-resort and coal-mine expansions and the thinning of bark-beetle-damaged trees.

It would set a larger acreage than previously expected under protections that exceed those of the federal rule.

Wednesday’s announcement is the culmination of seven years of work on various drafts, and in Denver on Wednesday,  the theme from state and federal officials was self-congratulation for a collaborative rule-making process and a victory in which Colorado’s independent spirit was seen as winning out against federal “one-size-fits-all” regulations.

“The new roadless rule represents a characteristically Colorado achievement,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “The rule enhances all that makes Colorado special while at the same time providing a measure of flexibility that supports local economies and ensures communities can take steps to protect themselves from threats of wildfire.”

In a letter last week urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt the Colorado rule, Sen. Mark Udall described the proposed rule as “a compromise in which almost no party got everything it wanted, but nearly all have agreed is fair.”

Among those not getting everything they wanted are conservationists, who had opposed the exemptions included in drafts of the Colorado rule, and, though it did not come as a surprise, they took exception to the fact the exemptions were included in Wednesday’s final version. Those include:

■ 8,000 acres of roadless areas on which ski areas would be allowed to expand.

■ 20,000 acres on which temporary roads would be allowed for the construction of vents for coal-mine expansions in the North Fork Valley.

■ 3 million acres, out of the 4.2 million covered by the final rule, that would be governed by weaker protections than the 2001 federal rule.

“The bottom line is that three-quarters of Colorado’s roadless lands will now be managed to a weaker standard than current management under the national Roadless Area Conservation Rule,” said a statement signed by a coalition of local conservation groups, including Rocky Mountain Wild, Wilderness Workshop and High Country Citizens Alliance.

But the remaining quarter or so of those 4.2 million acres will receive more protection from the Colorado rule than from the federal rule, under an “upper-tier” designation.

Conservationists’ concerns

These 1.2 million upper-tier acres are more than the 560,000 acres proposed for upper-tier protections in an earlier draft of the Colorado rule but less than the alternative draft conservationists had favored, which would have set 2 million acres aside as upper-tier.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney at Earthjustice, which has been defending the federal rule since 2001, echoed the mixed reaction of many in the conservation community.

“The rule announced today is an improvement over previous Colorado proposals. Protecting 1.2 million acres with the ‘upper-tier’ designation, including increased protection from pipelines and power lines, is a step forward,” he said, but the fact the other three-quarters would have less protection than they would under the federal rule meant that, “on balance, it is a step in the wrong direction.”

Glenn Casamassa, supervisor of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, who worked on developing the version of the rule released Wednesday, said the 1.2 million figure was arrived at following a review of public comments in which citizens pushed for further upper-tier acreage and a review of whether those acres would conflict with other uses.

The federal rule gives all roadless areas the same protections.

Conservationists had also feared the Forest Service would decide to allow road and other surface disturbances on leases that fall within areas designated as roadless under the federal rule, but were heartened to find the announcement appears to only allow directional drilling into those areas. Oil and gas companies previously said they intended to only do directional drilling in those areas anyway.

State’s interests

Wednesday’s announcement got a ringing endorsement from David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope chapter of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“The Colorado Roadless rule was crafted by Coloradans of all stripes, endorsed by three consecutive governors of both parties, and is critical to our energy and tourism sectors. It’s time for Washington to adopt Colorado’s Roadless rule and support our states’ interest in the process,” he said.

But conservationists still favored the consistency of the national rule over what they see as a loophole-ridden state rule. They also questioned why the state rule is necessary now that two separate federal courts upheld the federal roadless rule. The process behind the Colorado rule originally began over fears the federal rule might be struck down in courts, leaving the state’s roadless areas potentially vulnerable to development.

Officials now champion the flexibility that the Colorado rule will allow for dealing with what they see as problems unique to Colorado, including hazards posed by wildfires and bark-beetle-damaged trees.

“When finalized, this rule will provide a lasting commitment for the protection of roadless areas on our national forests, areas vital for water conservation, wildlife and for outdoor recreation,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was in Denver on Wednesday for the announcement. “Colorado’s roadless areas are also important for economic growth and development, providing opportunity for tourism and job development in rural communities.”

Hunters and anglers generally supported Wednesday’s announcement.

“We’ll be working with the Forest Service to strengthen the final rule, because it’s not just fish and wildlife habitat that will benefit from a stronger rule, but the many small communities in the state that depend on hunters and anglers for jobs and strong local economies,” said Sinjin Eberle, president of Colorado Trout Unlimited.

Zukoski, too, said he looked forward to “working with the Agriculture Department on further improvements.”

The rule-making process could be completed within 30 days from Wednesday’s announcement, and Zukoski would not say whether any legal actions would be considered if the final rule does not meet conservationists’ standards.



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