Environmental group: Ritter forest plan backfired | VailDaily.com

Environmental group: Ritter forest plan backfired

Steven K. Paulson
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

DENVER, Colorado ” A proposed rule expected next week from the Bush administration would allow approximately 100 new oil and gas leases to be developed in Colorado national forests currently protected from drilling under a plan backed by Gov. Bill Ritter that backfired, according to an environmental group.

A report by the Pew Environmental Group to be released Wednesday says the plan recommended by a state task force and backed by Ritter was intended to be an “insurance policy” to protect the forests from further legal challenges. However, the report, “Leasing Colorado’s Legacy: New Roadless Plan Opens Backcountry to Drilling”, said there was a little publicized loophole that would allow at least 97 gas leases approved by the Bush administration to move forward.

Those leases are enjoined following a 2006 federal court decision throwing out the Bush administration’s policy that opened some of the roadless forest land to potential development. A 200l rule by the Clinton administration declared 58.5 million acres of forests nationwide off-limits to new roads.

A federal judge in Wyoming voided the Clinton-era rule in 2005 and the Bush administration passed its own policy, giving states the chance to petition to protect the roadless areas. Colorado submitted a petition.

Colorado’s 4.4 million acres of undeveloped forests are protected now that the 2001 roadless rule is in effect nationwide again. That could change, though, if the state goes ahead with its own roadless plan.

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The Pew report says the issue is mineral development approved under the Bush rule. The concern is the gap between the 2001 rule and the effective date of Colorado’s policy, which likely will be next year.

The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, where most of the new leases are located, are popular recreation areas and prime fish and wildlife habitat.

The environmental group says the rulemaking would repeal the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule in Colorado and replace it with a policy that would deny national forests in the state the same level of protection given to those in other states.

“This is a clear case of unintended consequences. It’s ironic that Governor Ritter’s action taken nearly two years ago to protect Colorado’s backcountry forests now could backfire. Colorado’s national forests could end up as the country’s least protected national forests and become a target for drilling and other development,” said Jane Danowitz, senior officer with the Pew Environment Group and its U.S. public lands program director.

Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, said there is still a lot of uncertainty about the rulemaking and Ritter will work with the federal government for a plan that is equitable.

“What has not changed is that the future of roadless areas in this state and in this country is very uncertain, and this seems to add to the uncertainty. Our entire approach to land management is one of balance. We are trying to balance environmental concerns with responsible land management and make appropriate, responsible energy decisions,” Dreyer said.

The uncertainty exists because of ongoing legal challenges. The federal decision out of San Francisco that overturned the Bush administration’s roadless rule and reinstated the 2001 rule is being challenged in courts in California and Wyoming.

The Pew report suggests the amount of recoverable oil and gas from the new leases would be minuscule, citing a recent analysis of federal government data by The Wilderness Society. That organization said it found that economically recoverable gas in all of Colorado’s roadless areas could only meet total U.S. natural gas consumption for a total of 10 to 17 days. Economically recoverable oil in the state’s roadless areas would fuel less than 12 hours of total U.S. oil consumption.

Danowitz called on Ritter to call for a time out and ask the administration to suspend the rulemaking until the full impact of these new oil and gas leases on valuable fish and wildlife and the state’s economic future can be assessed.

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