Contesting the rules of roadlessness

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Six years ago, in the interest of protecting Colorado’s pristine wilderness areas while the national roadless area rule was being contested in court, the state began development of a roadless rule. Two drafts and 200,000 public comments later, local conservation organizations are now looking to scrap that rule and go back to the national roadless rule, which has since been validated twice by circuit courts, including the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in October. Not only is a state rule no long necessary, conservation groups say, the Colorado roadless rule doesn’t offer protections for Colorado’s forests that are as strong as the national rule. They’re putting pressure on the Obama administration to block the proposed Colorado Roadless Rule.

“The national rule, because it was so thoroughly prepared and it does include so many thoughtful accommodations for special needs for community safety and good forest management and healthy forest and road building for existing valid rights — because all that stuff is there, roadless areas and Colorado’s other needs are well protected under this newly affirmed national rule, so that’s the standard we need to uphold,” says Steve Smith, president of the board at the Wilderness Workshop. “The proposed Colorado rule diminishes protections, takes lands out of protection compared to the nationwide rule, so it’s not as strong. … It would end up with Colorado having a rule that was weaker than what other states have.”

Roadless rules provide specific directions for the conservation — in terms of road building, tree cutting and construction zones — of 4.2 million acres of National Forest lands in Colorado and 60 million acres across 39 U.S. states.

In response to criticisms that Colorado’s proposal didn’t offer tight enough protections, the U.S. Forest Service added an “upper tier” designation for lands in need of a high level of conservation. That distinction applies to 562,000 acres.

“As opposed to the 2001 rule, the Colorado Roadless Rule is tailored to Colorado’s needs of conserving land areas and encouraging economic development and job growth and continuing use,” a U.S. Forest Service document says about the Colorado Roadless Rule.

Colorado’s rule also provides an exception for the North Fork coal mining area, which includes parts of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, and for ski resorts that may want to expand.

After a 90-day public comment period this summer, the proposed rule was sent to the federal government for approval. That process is expected to conclude in 2012 with a decision on the rule.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, Earthjustice, High Country Citizens Alliance, The Pew Environment Group, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Western Colorado Congress, and the Wilderness Workshop have been running ads requesting people to petition President Obama to overturn the state plan.

“Roadless forests are some of the most important areas in the state for our drinking water sources, for wildlife habitat, for backcountry recreation,” says Elise Jones, executive director of Colorado Environmental Coalition. “These are really some of the gems, and it’s really important that we have the strongest possible protections.”

Now that it’s been defended by the courts, the national roadless rule is the best tool to provide strong protections for the forests, Jones says.

“The vast majority of people who work in forest conservations would prefer not to have a state rule but to have a national rule that covers all the forests so that there’s consistent protections,” Jones says.

There’s a question of how other states might handle their own roadless rules, Steve Smith says, a process that could leave the doors open to development. So far, Idaho is the only other state that has written its own rule.

“Because we have something in hand that’s reliable, that’s solid, that’s good protection, we’re reluctant to give it up for who knows what,” he says. “In Colorado, we do know what’s proposed; that’s why the other half of our message is, if you are going to do a state rule in the name of customizing it, then make sure you get it right.”

These conservation organizations have submitted, both during the public comment period and after, suggestions they argue would strengthen the rule at least to the level of the national rule, such as clarifying the distance from town for wildfire buffer tree-cutting and requiring rehabilitation at construction zones for pipe line and power lines. The Colorado Environmental Coalition has also identified 2.5 million acres that qualify for upper-tier protection.

The conservationist groups have also called out 86 leases that were granted when the Bush administration put a hold on the roadless rule, and asked that those leases add explicit roadless stipulations, which require oil and gas companies to use any possible means to access oil and gas reserves without making a road and to reclaim the area afterward.

“We have to team up to be sure that we’re very clear, as a state, as citizens, as governments, which places are going to get some solid protection,” Steve Smith says. “If there is going to be a state rule, it must be at least as protective as the nationwide rule. It’s got to meet that standard.”