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Dead-end for roadless rule?

Bob Berwyn

Sitting here by a fern-covered stump near Tennessee Pass, with soft sunlight filtering down through cool green spruce boughs, it’s hard to believe this land along with millions of acres like it is at the heart of a raging management battle; a fight that is shaped as much by ideology and economics as it is by science.Here and there, slender saplings poke through the duff on the forest floor, straining toward the sky. Huge logs slowly disintegrate, building up a layer of rich, dense soil. Nearby, a tiny brook gurgles along between mossy rocks. All seems harmonious.But just a few yards away, an old logging road is cut into the slope. At a low spot, water has pooled and then washed downhill, taking with it tons of sand and other, even finer sediments. The materials have dried to form a dense cake, choking trees, wildflowers and willows. The trail of sand ends in the stream, where it’s clear that there’s not enough water to transport the silt any farther downstream.This is one example of a problem spot that is degrading at least a couple of acres of forest land. And around Colorado there are thousands of miles of roads like this on national forests, some open for recreation, others blocked off by the Forest Service, but still contributing to erosion and runoff. While the agency knows about the problem in general, and has taken a few steps to close roads and re-vegetate some hot spots, much of the damage remains uncharted and unquantified.With the road maintenance backlog totaling millions of dollars, the Forest Service adopted a new national roadless rule in 2001. Experts mapped 58.5 million acres of land that is still unroaded and set it aside in what was hailed as one of the agency’s boldest conservation moves.The current national forest road system, by contrast, includes 380,000 miles of road, enough road to circle the globe more than 15 times. Part of the idea behind the roadless rule is that more roads would require more maintenance. The agency took a record number of public comments on the plan, and by all accounts, public support was extensive.”This was the most broadly supported land conservation initiative in the last 100 years,” said Steve Holmer, a former campaign organizer for the American Lands Alliance “Polls showed strong support from every major demographic group: Republicans and Democrats, soccer moms and hunters, easterners and westerners, off-road vehicle riders and hikers, urban and rural.”But what the American people want is real and complete protection to keep the bulldozers and winches, chainsaws and logging company helicopters out of our last wild forests forever,” Holmer said.But there was one problem with what Holmer and people like the ALA were looking for: The Bush administration rolled into office around the same time the rule was finalized and immediately began rolling back the new protections for roadless areas.Getting realistic about roadsIn opposition to people like Holmer, many conservative Western lawmakers see the initiative as an unwarranted federal land grab that would block access and preclude local governments from having a say in determining the future of those lands.”By extending a ban on building new roads, the Clinton-Gore administration chose to push their unrealistic agenda of preventing the public from entering public lands,” said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) when the roadless rule was released at the end of Clinton’s term. “Such elitist actions by the Forest Service would reserve the benefits of our taxpayer-owned forests to a favored few.”In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens joined 11 other Western governors in urging the Clinton administration to be sensitive to local concerns.”Governor Owens feels very strongly that local community concerns need to considered in these new federal guidelines,” said Owens spokesman Dick Wadham. “Colorado has a long history of public access to public lands and is concerned that that public access could be restricted under these new guidelines.”Western governors also sent a letter to Clinton.”(The roadless proposal) has become a polarizing force in our states,” it read. “As your intergovernmental partners in the management of public lands, we are interested in formally participating in the formulation of this rule, so the final result is ecologically, economically and politically viable. We strongly believe that there are additional issues profoundly influencing forest health and sustainability that must be analyzed simultaneously.”Roads as fire protectionOne argument for opening roadless areas to logging is in the name of wildfire mitigation. As dry summers resulted in massive blazes around the West, residents started to pay attention to the notion of forest health. With the feeling of, “We’ve gotta do something,” people started to listen to proponents of widespread forest thinning as a way to ecological salvation.But while thinning can help alleviate the wildfire threat in lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests, for example, there is little convincing evidence that such treatments are effective in the vast high country lodgepole stands, or in the subalpine spruce and fir zone.”Forest Service claims that ‘forest health’ logging is needed in currently roadless areas is nonsense,” said public land watchdog Randi Spivak. “The agency’s own data shows that roadless areas are in the best shape and that the logged areas have the worst fire problems,” she said.SanctuariesWatershed health is not the only issue. As a worldwide population boom continues, human activities have, by most accounts, been responsible for triggering an unprecedented global wave of species extinctions. Wild mountain areas like the Colorado Rockies still remain as islands of relatively healthy biodiversity, but even here, demand for natural resource extraction and recreation are putting pressure on the resources.With most forest lands already heavily criss-crossed by trails and roads, wildlife experts have said the roadless areas in addition to existing designated wilderness terrain serve as biodiversity sanctuaries, where natural biological processes can unfold at an evolutionary pace. Preserving these areas is crucial to maintaining natural habitat for plants and animals at any meaningful landscape level, according to conservation biologists.Wide-ranging species like lynx need substantial blocks of connected forest to maintain healthy, dispersed populations that aren’t subject to a single catastrophic extinction event like disease or habitat destruction by a fire, for example. In other instances, a rare type of plant might grow in only a handful of places across a million-acre region, tiny populations that could be eradicated by just one ill-designed road.It’s hard sometimes to step back and get a grasp on the Big Picture. You have to imagine yourself soaring above the land, like a hawk, and observing from above the patterns of forests, wetlands, meadows and rocky peaks that make up the patchwork quilt of the Southern Rockies, an ecoregion unto itself, where plants and animals from boreal regions come toe to toe with species from the desert Southwest.Roadless areas often provide vital habitat and migration routes for numerous wildlife species and are particularly important for those requiring large home ranges, such as the grizzly bear, wolf and lynx. Many roadless areas also act as ecological anchors, allowing nearby federal, state, and private lands to be developed for economic purposes. The public has rightfully questioned whether the Forest Service should build new roads into roadless areas when it lacks the resources needed to maintain its existing road system.The White River National Forest sits in the heart of this region, and forest planners say they mapped about 640,000 acres of White River land as roadless. Some of the areas are adjacent or near existing wilderness areas, others are large, stand-alone chunks of roadless land. Some of the significant roadless parcels include the Red Table Mountain area; the Meadow Mountain roadless area, adjacent to the Holy Cross Wilderness and the Black Lakes roadless area, next to the Eagles Nest Wilderness.Dead-end?The long-running roadless rumble took on new life earlier this month, as the Forest Service unveiled a new proposal to let states take the lead. Top agency officials said it could end the uncertainty and litigation over the fate of these lands, and that the plan sets a new tone for state-federal collaboration.Conservation groups, meanwhile, reacted predictably, charging that old-growth forests, wildlife habitat and water quality are at risk. The new proposal amounts to a timber give-away, enviros said in a barrage of press releases.”Our actions today advance President Bush’s commitment to cooperatively conserving roadless areas on national forests,” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a prepared statement, unveiling the new rule in Idaho. “The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress, nor certainty for communities. Our announcements today illustrate our commitment to working closely with the nation’s governors to meet the needs of local communities, and to maintaining the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the National Forest System.”Separately, Veneman also proposed establishing a national advisory committee to provide expert consultation for implementing the state-specific petition rulemaking process. Members of the committee would include experts in fish and wildlife biology, fish and wildlife management, forest management, outdoor recreation, and other relevant disciplines.But some high country residents took issue with the new plan immediately. Summit County backcountry enthusiast and Wilderness Sports owner Tom Jones Jr. said he opposes any incursions into roadless areas.”It’s a large part of what people come to enjoy in Summit County,” said Jones. “There are plenty of roads for recreation as it is. Roadless areas are a dwindling resource,” he said. “We have a recreation-based economy here, and roadless and wild areas are a big part of that.”Jones said the federal government should manage federal lands, not passing the buck to local or state governments that might be more apt to listen to narrow special interest groups. And he pointed out that there could be some areas of interest to loggers in parts of the area, mentioning the Lower Blue and old-growth spruce and fir around Piney Peak, for example.In a press release distributed by conservation groups, Vail town council member Diana Donovan said, “Roadless area protection is critical to the outdoor recreation economy in many of our mountain towns, including Vail. These proposed changes will definitely make this protection harder to achieve.”Stay tunedThis battle is far from over. Top state officials commented favorably on the new Forest Service proposal to let states take the lead, but White River forest experts say their forest plan already sets a management tone that may not be affected too much by external factors.Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Russell George said the latest proposal gives states an appropriate role in the process and that the issue is one of his priorities. As a first step, he’ll talk with regional Forest Service officials and possibly set up joint state-federal teams, George said. Preliminary talks with top regional agency leaders are already under way, he added.”There needs to be a conversation. Everybody needs to be on the same page,” George said. “I think they (Forest Service officials) are asking, ‘What role do you want Colorado to play?’ I think the Forest Service is interested in hearing the answer to that,” George said. “I’m obviously very interested to coordinate with Governor Owens’ view,” he added.But the timing is still uncertain. Forest Service officials said that, as they understand the rule (still subject to a 60-day public comment period), any lands that haven’t been listed in a state petition after an 18-month interim directive expires would revert back to whatever forest zoning they had before the 2001 rule came out.”Whether we’ll have maps in 18 months, I don’t know,” George said.”My sensing is, there will be a fair amount of interest from the citizens of Colorado as to how these areas will be managed,” said regional Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway. Just the proposed rule itself has generated interest, Holloway said, adding that the agency expects to get plenty of state comment at this preliminary stage. The 640,000 roadless acres on the WRNF are essentially an overlay to the management prescriptions of the WRNF plan. For example, about 3,600 roadless acres overlap with ski a rea-zoned land, said Melany Lamb, a planner with the forest’s Glenwood Springs headquarters.Lamb said the roadless rule was incorporated into the forest plan revision process. The plan sets guidelines for preserving the roadless character of the areas in the context of those management prescriptions.An area zoned as a forest landscape linkage, for example, would have one set of standards and guidelines to determine what type if any road building is appropriate. An area zoned for dispersed recreation has a different set of rules.”Regardless of the national rule, we have about 640,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas,” Lamb said. “The majority of our roadless areas (363,000 acres) are in management prescriptions that don’t allow for logging and road building,” she said. About 277,000 acres are in management zones that could permit some type of road building – for example, wildfire mitigation work, she said.Some of these areas could conceivably be in play as the forest creeps toward revising its trail- and road-specific travel management plan, although the fundamental management prescriptions for the various zones remain in effect.Lamb attribute the delay in the travel management planning process in part to an overwhelming amount of technical mapping data that is still being refined. VTContact Bob Berwyn through the Vail Trail office by emailing us at tboyd@vailtrail.com


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