Colorado pursues roadless plan amid questions |

Colorado pursues roadless plan amid questions

DENVER, Colorado ” Colorado officials remain confident in a state plan to protect more than 4 million acres of roadless national forest land despite calls from some environmentalists for the Obama administration to revive a national standard they say would better protect critical wildlife habitat and watersheds.

Colorado, one of only two states to write its own roadless plan, is working with the U.S. Forest Service to clarify language and review why the agency didn’t designate certain areas as roadless. The state hopes to complete work in the next six months on rules officials say will protect the land while legal battles continue over a Clinton administration policy.

The Clinton administration in 2001 banned new roads on about 58 million acres of forests nationwide. But the rule’s status is uncertain following court rulings and a 2005 Bush administration policy that opened some of the land to development.

Supporters of the Clinton-era policy hope President Barack Obama restores it and that Colorado shelves its plan, which they say is weaker.

“We’ve been longtime proponents of a national rule, a uniform national policy,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the public lands group of the Pew Environment Group.

Environmental, hunting and angling groups have criticized exemptions in Colorado’s proposal, including temporary roads for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal mining and some utility infrastructure. Another exemption would cover about 8,000 acres of ski terrain.

State officials counter that the ongoing court fights underscore Colorado’s need for its own plan. Gov. Bill Ritter says it’s an insurance policy while federal appeals courts in San Francisco and Denver consider dueling decisions: one reinstating the 2001 rule and one overturning it.

“I do think the governor’s decision has been shown to be an extraordinarily wise one,” said Mike King, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Colorado and Idaho were the only states to write plans when the Bush administration replaced the 2001 roadless rule but said governors could petition the federal government to keep forest land off-limits to development.

Environmentalists and outdoors groups and businesses urged Colorado to withdraw its petition, written by a task force, when federal Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco invalidated the Bush administration’s roadless rule in 2006.

Last year, a federal judge in Wyoming overturned the Clinton-era policy, and Laporte narrowed the scope of her injunction against developing roadless areas to 10 Western states.

Colorado was left out of Laporte’s decision. But it has a separate agreement with the federal government barring development in roadless areas until its management plan is approved. King says other states don’t have that assurance because of legal wrangling.

In Idaho, a lawsuit by conservation groups claims the state’s roadless plan violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

Colorado’s proposal improves on the 2001 rule, King said. It would prohibit oil and gas pipelines in roadless areas if the minerals are produced outside the areas.

King said Colorado officials pushed for the prohibition after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year allowed parts of a 25.5-mile gas pipeline to be built through three roadless areas in western Colorado forests. The court ruled that a two-lane construction route wasn’t a road under the Clinton-era rule.

“That’s a huge loophole,” King said. “We’ve asked the Forest Service to fix that problem.”

Colorado has also asked the Forest Service to re-evaluate the exclusion of more than 800,000 acres from the inventory of roadless areas.

An unresolved issue is a so-called “gap” in which oil and gas leases were approved in roadless areas while the Clinton-era ban was not in effect. Roughly 67,000 acres of roadless areas in Colorado could be affected.

Steve Smith of The Wilderness Society was a Colorado task force member who supports the Clinton roadless rule. He said he believes the state plan was improved during reviews by a federal advisory panel and the public.

“It also would be fine if the administration put the original rule back in place and Colorado used that,” Smith said.

An ultimate solution, Smith said, might be a federal law that couldn’t be changed from administration to administration.

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