Groups turn up pressure on roadless forest plan
DENVER, Colorado – Conservation groups are turning up the pressure on Gov. Bill Ritter to halt work on a plan to manage more than 4 million acres of roadless forest land in Colorado and wait for a national policy from the Obama administration.
Four conservation groups have asked Colorado’s congressional delegation to urge Ritter to take advantage of a timeout on the status of about 58 million acres of roadless forests nationwide and address what they see as flaws in the state’s plan.
Trout Unlimited and its Colorado chapter, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers say in recent letters to delegation members that the state’s plan for 4.4 million acres of roadless forest land wouldn’t adequately protect the backcountry.
Eight other Colorado and national environmental groups have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to postpone a decision on Colorado’s roadless plan until a national policy is set.
Critics say the plan would leave Colorado’s roadless areas the least protected nationwide. They point to the allowance of temporary roads for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal mining and some utility infrastructure. Some ski area terrain would be permanently removed from the inventory of roadless areas.
Ritter was traveling Thursday and couldn’t be reached. State natural resource officials didn’t immediately return a phone message after business hours.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is reviewing the requests, said Udall’s spokeswoman, Tara Trujillo.
In May, Vilsack issued a directive reinstating for one year most of a Clinton-era ban against new roads and development on more than 58 million acres of remote national forest land nationwide. The rule approved by the Clinton administration in 2001 banned road-building and logging on the land, most of which is in the West.
Conflicting court decisions in lawsuits by environmentalists, states and businesses since then have left the so-called roadless rule’s legal status in doubt.
Ritter has called Colorado’s roadless proposal an insurance policy amid the legal uncertainty. He has said the state will complete work on it and seek federal approval despite Vilsack’s directive.
Vilsack’s decision to call a time-out while a national policy is considered makes moving ahead at the state level unnecessary, said Dave Petersen, Colorado field director for Trout Unlimited.
“The excuse for rushing this through is totally gone,” Petersen said.
Petersen was a member of a state task force that wrote the roadless plan when Ritter’s predecessor, Republican Bill Owens, was in office. He wants to see the plan shelved.
Ritter, a Democrat, made some changes and resubmitted the proposal to the U.S. Forest Service, which is negotiating with the state on some provisions.
Vilsack would have the final say on Colorado’s plan.
Colorado and Idaho were the only states to write their own roadless policies when the Bush administration replaced the Clinton-era roadless rule. Some of the land was opened to development, but President George W. Bush said governors could petition to protect the forest land.
Idaho’s plan has been approved and Vilsack has more than 9 million acres of roadless national forests there will remain under state control.
Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited’s national chief operating officer, said Idaho’s experience shows that a state roadless policy can work. Not all conservation groups support Idaho’s plan, Wood said, but it was developed after a lot of collaboration and has broad public support.
“I don’t know of any conservation group that supports the Colorado plan,” said Wood, an architect of the 2001 roadless rule while with the Forest Service.
Some of the areas that were protected under the Clinton-era policy have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.