Colorado lawmakers seek roads in forest to vent mine gas |

Colorado lawmakers seek roads in forest to vent mine gas

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado

DENVER – Colorado lawmakers on Friday weighed into the Obama administration’s deliberations over a proposal submitted by Gov. Bill Ritter for managing national forest roadless areas in the state.

A bipartisan group of 15 state legislators asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to grant the U.S. Forest Service authority to allow temporary roads in a roadless area in western Colorado for the purpose of venting gas from a coal mine.

The lawmakers’ letter points out that “the Colorado Roadless Rule Petition (recently submitted to your office) specifically authorized these venting operations” in roadless areas.

State lawmakers “request that you immediately re-delegate your authority in this matter to the Forest Service so that consultations with the State of Colorado can be completed as quickly as possible,” says the letter circulated and signed Friday morning.

At stake is how much recreation, mining, logging and other activities the federal government will allow on 4.2 million roadless acres of Colorado’s 14.4 million national forest acres.

Vilsack has declared a moratorium on road building in national forests while federal authorities hash out details of a comprehensive national rule.

Many conservation groups are pushing for a consistent national approach – opposing Colorado’s effort.

Vilsack has welcomed Ritter’s submission of a Colorado rule, which he praised as offering “strong protections.”

Vilsack also recently prodded regional Forest Service officials to work with Oxbow Mining to try to find a way to build temporary roads needed to drill air vents so underground mining can continue at the Elk Creek mine in western Colorado.

The mine produces a low-sulfur coal that helps Midwestern and Eastern power plants meet federal air-pollution standards. It employs about 350 of the 1,000 or so miners in the North Fork Valley, near Delta, where coal mining remains an economic mainstay.

Colorado Republicans Sen. Josh Penry of Grand Junction and Rep. Cory Gardner of Yuma circulated the letter Friday – and received support from several Democrats.

“We’ve seen what happened in West Virginia,” Gardner said, referring to the April 5 mining disaster that killed 29 miners. “This sort of bureaucratic delay simply should not be allowed.”

Gardner lauded Colorado’s plan as “an example of why it’s important that local leadership take precedence over Washington leadership.”

Penry said “these vents can be added with nonpermanent roads in a relatively noninvasive way.” Federal authorities should “do the analysis, yes,” Penry said, “but make a decision.”

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, in signing the letter, understood there are about 15 miles of existing roads in the “roadless” forest above the coal mine but was uncertain how much more road building would be required, she said. “I didn’t review a map in conjunction with the letter.”

She sees Colorado’s plan for managing roadless forests as superior to the current national rule because “it allows for certain access that addresses industry needs. … These are important industries for Colorado. The ski industry. The coal industry. The mining industry,” she said.

The Colorado approach also gives flexibility “to go in, through forest operations, to prevent any fire that could be putting communities at risk,” she said.

“This basically opens the conversation with the Forest Service that we all need to have about what the challenges are to keep those mines open in the North Fork Valley.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Romer of Denver said he signed the letter after Penry placed it in front of him.

“He said, ‘It is methane-venting. It is good. It is safe,'” Romer said.

“This is a place where being too dogmatic, too ideological, is not in the interests of Colorado as a whole. I understand that the roadless issue is very sensitive.”

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