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Where the wild things are

Tamara Miller

John Cochrane feels conflicted.

On one hand, building roads in pristine areas will disturb the wildlife he appreciates so much. On the other hand, building roads in roadless areas may be the only way to get crews in to thin Eagle County’s overgrown forests before a devastating fire takes over.

Across the state, Coloradoans are being asked to identify which formerly roadless areas should remain that way. Formerly roadless, because the Bush administration lifted a nationwide ban, known as the “roadless rule” last spring. The rule, created under the Clinton administration, banned development in 58 million acres of national forests – about 600,000 acres in the White River National Forest.

A 13-member committee is traveling across the state, seeking the public’s opinion. The committee won’t be in our area until this summer, when they have a meeting scheduled for June 21 in Glenwood Springs. But many wildlife enthusiasts worry about what could happen if Eagle County’s roadless areas go unprotected.

Cochrane, who owns Gorsuch Outfitters, said there aren’t enough areas that are closed off from roads.

“We’ve already in this valley disturbed so much of the habitat that the animals use in the winter,” he said.

Unlike Garfield County, a growing target for oil and gas drilling, Eagle County’s roadless areas may remain untouched, even without protections. No company has detected prime oil or gas drilling grounds here and the timber companies that operated here in the ’80s are long gone, said former wildlife officer Bill Heicher.

Rather, the pressure may come from members of the general public who want easier access to the backcountry.

“From a wildlife standpoint it’s bad, because solitude is critical for any kind of species,” he said. “We’ve got more users, especially noisy users. It’s a big impact.”

Areas south of Eagle and Gypsum, such as Hardscrabble and Adam mountains, as well as areas bordering the Eagle’s Nest and Holy Cross wilderness areas had roadless protection. The county’s roadless areas are particularly special to Heicher, a longtime Eagle County resident. Because they lack wilderness protection, they also lack the attention and overuse those wilderness areas now get, he said.

“There’s a loss of solitude for people using the woods now,” he said. “Excluding designated wilderness areas, I think people in the Eagle Valley would be hard-pressed to find locations on a map that are further than two miles away from an existing road.”

That doesn’t bode well for wildlife or for fish, said Brian O’Donnell, director of Trout Unlimited’s public land initiative. Trout Unlimited is a national conservation group with offices in Colorado. Building roads in pristine areas chops up habitat and breeding grounds for big game, like elk and deer, forcing the animals to constantly be on the move, he said. Additionally, building roads causes sediment, weeds and toxins to feed into streams, which harms fish, O’Donnell added.

The official stance the Forest Service has taken on the issue is that individual states should be involved in determining what areas should remain roadless – a step that was omitted under the Clinton Administration.’

“First of all, the Forest Service has a tremendous road maintenance backlog,” O’Donnell said. “They can’t pay for the roads they have right now.”

O’Donnell is based in Durango and attended a meeting there about the roadless rule issue. About 500 people attended, he said. The majority wanted to keep formerly roadless areas protected from development, he said.

Cochrane doesn’t know which side of the fence he’s on yet.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said, noting that roads are necessary to thin fire-ready forests. “Do we want to lose the entire resource trying to keep everybody out?” VT

Tamara Miller can be reached for comment at tmiller@vailtrail.com


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