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Time to speak up about roadless areas

Ken Neubecker

Roadless areas are some of the most important land we have in our national forests. That is especially true here in our White River National Forest. These areas provide critical habitat for wildlife below 10,000 feet and the “rock and ice” wilderness areas.

Roadless areas are also extremely valuable to the human communities and economies because of their recreational use.

Roadless areas constitute about 2 percent of the land in the United States, and most of these areas are in the rapidly growing and ever-changing west.

What is “roadless?” Many areas contain old abandoned roads from past use or more recently created illegal roads. The Forest Service only recognizes roads that are officially designated as forest roads and that appear on their maps. If a “road” doesn’t fit this definition, it’s not a legitimate road.

On the other hand, roadless areas are not like wilderness, off limits to motorized or mechanized travel. Mountain bikes, dirt bikes and even ATVs to some extent have access to roadless areas. Snowmobiles in winter enjoy access to most inventoried roadless areas.

These roadless areas, along with wilderness, provide the essential backbone of recreation and public enjoyment of the National Forests.

They are also the headwaters areas of our rivers, the primary source of the cold, clean water that provides for fish and human needs downstream. The majority of remaining populations of the state’s three native trout species, the Colorado River, Rio Grande and Greenback Cutthroats, are found in roadless areas. Roadless areas provide a haven for wildlife, desperately needed winter range and calving areas for deer and elk as the valley floors fill with people and houses.

These areas are the great remaining preserves that maintain all of this. For the hunter, angler and the businesses that depend on these activities there are no more important lands in Colorado and the West.

It is important that these areas remain roadless and largely undeveloped. Roads and ATV trails can cause tremendous erosion and sedimentation in the headwater streams. According to the White River National Forest, “Roads and other travelways probably have more impact on aquatic resources than any other activity in the forest.”

Roads from recreational use can be very damaging, but nothing like the roads and road networks created from some full scale “development” activities such as timbering and oils and gas drilling. Road networks from these activities can have a devastating impact on streams, wildlife and habitat.

Last year, Colorado established the Roadless Areas Review Task Force to make recommendations to the governor about what uses should be permitted in these remaining roadless areas. The philosophy behind this process is to give the “local communities” a voice in deciding the fate of our roadless areas.

That sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t always work that way. The governor needn’t listen to the task force, and the secretary of agriculture needn’t listen to any of the governors or advisors. Too often the “local community” seems to be composed of powerful industry lobbies, local in name only.

But we can make it hard for them to ignore the real local community. If you enjoy the wildlife, the hunting and fishing, the hiking and other recreational activities that our national forests provide, then you, the “local community,” along with the “local community” of visitors from all over the country, need to speak up.

The task force has already heard the generalities. What they need are specifics. Which roadless areas are important to you and why. There will be a big meeting in Denver on Friday, Feb. 24, from 2 – 6 p.m. at the Adams Mark Hotel downtown. There will also be one in Glenwood Springs on June 21. You can also comment and get more information on the web at keystone.org/html/roadless_areas_task_force.html.

Get involved and get informed. Act now, rather than re-act after paradise is paved. There is too much to lose. VT

Ken Neubecker writes about water and the environment for The Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at eagleriver@sopris.net.


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