Hunters, anglers want Colorado to nix roadless plan
Vail , CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado ” Some of the hunters and anglers who supported Gov. Bill Ritter when he ran for office say the Democrat is not living up to his campaign pledge to protect Colorado’s 4 million acres of roadless national forest land.
Conservationists have asked Ritter before to change or withdraw the roadless plan because of loopholes they fear will leave the roadless areas less protected than comparable land in every other state.
This week, as a federal advisory panel considers the plan, some of those groups are challenging Ritter to make good on what they say was a promise in his 2006 campaign to support responsible development and protect vital wildlife habitat.
“We’ve begged, pleaded to get him to make it right, and he hasn’t done it. Now we’re down to the point of asking him, ‘Why?'” David Petersen of the conservation group Trout Unlimited said Wednesday.
Petersen was a member of the state task force that wrote the plan in 2006. He opposed the final version, first submitted to the federal government by former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.
Ritter was on an Asian trade mission and unavailable for comment.
The governor, who sought support from hunters, anglers and conservationists during his campaign, has called Colorado’s plan an insurance policy because of conflicting court decisions on a 2001 federal ban on about 58 million acres of forest land nationwide.
A federal court in San Francisco has upheld the 2001 rule by the Clinton administration and tossed out a Bush administration policy, which opened some of the land to development. A federal court in Wyoming has overturned the Clinton-era rule.
The 2001 road-building ban is the law of the land, opponents of Colorado’s proposal believe. State officials say there’s too much legal uncertainty.
Federal appeals courts in Denver and San Francisco are expected eventually to weigh in.
“We’re committed to getting this done right,” said Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Critics worry the Bush administration is trying to rush through the plan before President-elect Barack Obama takes over. But Sherman said he doubts work will be wrapped by then.
Federal officials have pledged the forest land will be protected until the plan is final, Sherman said.
State officials say there’s been progress on strengthening protections in Colorado’s plan, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service.
Environmentalists and others have criticized exemptions in the plan, including temporary roads to reach livestock grazing areas, for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal mining and some utility infrastructure. It would also permanently remove about 8,000 acres of ski area terrain from the inventory of roadless areas.
A major concern is the so-called “gap” oil and gas leases approved in roadless areas between the time the Clinton-era road-building ban was thrown out and reinstated. Tens of thousands of acres could be affected.
The exemptions and potential drilling would leave roadless forests in Colorado, one of the nation’s premier hunting, fishing and recreation destinations, less protected than in any other state, critics claim.
“Too many acres would be opened to industrial development and intrusive road construction that could damage the state’s priceless and irreplaceable backcountry,” conservation groups said in a Nov. 13 letter to Ritter.
The letter was signed by members of Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Some of the areas classified as roadless have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.
Colorado natural resources chief Sherman said the state plan provides flexibility while protecting the roadless areas. The state wanted some leeway in dealing with the risk of wildfire, particularly in areas where the bark-beetle infestation has killed tens of thousands of acres of pine trees.
Sherman said the Colorado proposal adds 300,000 more acres to the roadless areas in the 2001 policy.
“We value these areas,” Sherman said. “They’re very important to Colorado’s future.”