Colorado’s successful effort to get the Bush administration to stop fast-tracking a proposed roadless rule for the management of 4.4 million acres of the state’s untrammeled backcountry is winning praise from public policy watchdog groups and conservationists.
The Colorado Independent disclosed last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hoped to publish the controversial Colorado roadless rule in the Federal Register by Jan. 16, four days before the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.
But late last week, Harris Sherman, director of the Department of Natural Resources, wrote a letter to the Department of Agriculture to request a delay in finalizing the roadless rule. On Friday, he announced the Bush administration agreed to hold off.
“Gov. Ritter made the right call to ask the Bush administration not to issue its proposed rule regarding Colorado’s national forest roadless areas until the rule’s serious flaws can be fixed,” said Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands program director for Pew Environment Group.
“With 4.4 million acres of the state’s best backcountry on the line, there’s no need to rush through a rule that, among other things, would allow roughly 100 new oil and gas leases to move forward in these pristine areas. It’s wise to wait.”
The management of so-called roadless public lands in Colorado has been a contentious issue since the Clinton administration in its waning days issued a national rule that in 2001 put broad restrictions on the building of roads on 58 million acres nationwide. The Bush administration quickly suspended that rule, leaving backcountry public lands in limbo.
A series of court cases ensued, with a San Francisco district judge briefly reinstating the Clinton rule and rejecting a Bush administration plan to allow states to individually petition for their own set of rules. A Wyoming district court judge later invalidated the Clinton rule again, and the San Francisco judge last week limited her ruling to exclude Colorado.
Colorado and Idaho are the only two states that took advantage of the Bush petition process.
With so much legal uncertainty, the state is determined not to rely on the Obama administration to push for its own national rule more closely paralleling the Clinton rule, but officials say they want to make sure they get the Colorado rule right before it’s finalized.
“We’re a little nervous right now because there is no national roadless rule, so we’re in a situation where we have a letter from [Undersecretary of Agriculture] Mark Rey saying that no activities inconsistent with the Colorado petition will occur, but we’d just as soon tie that down into a rule as soon as reasonably possible,” said Mike King, deputy director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
“We would support a national rule, but we’ve invested a lot in our Colorado rule and would ask that we would get some special dispensation for the effort and the evaluation that we’ve undertaken.”
Once a final environmental impact statement is completed and signed off on by the head of the Forest Service, the secretary of agriculture has 30 days to consider the Colorado rule. There is speculation Obama may appoint U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., as his secretary of agriculture.
The Forest Service’s preferred alternative for the Colorado roadless rule takes 520,000 acres of backcountry out of the state’s roadless inventory. Colorado Division of Wildlife officials have disputed some of those deletions, contending they should still be considered roadless and therefore prime wildlife habitat.
Another point of contention for environmentalists are exceptions that would allow for “long-term temporary” road building to service more than 100 oil and gas leases that have been issued by the Forest Service since the Clinton rule was suspended in 2001. Additionally, there is some dispute over how deep into the forest roads should be allowed for cutting timber to reduce wildfire danger from the state’s mountain pine beetle epidemic.
The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region spokesman said those are all issues that are still under consideration regardless of the timeframe for finalizing the rule.
“We know what some of the key issues are, but we’re still working through them,” spokesman Terry McCann said.
King said the state wants to avoid more oil and gas leases without a roadless rule in place, and simply can’t afford to wait on the Obama administration to tackle the issue. Ritter opted to continue the Colorado roadless rule process first started by former Gov. Bill Owens’ administration in 2005.
“With no federal rule in place all of those [roadless] areas are subject to future oil and gas leases unless we take action to tie down the Colorado protection. We don’t want another set of gap leases,” King said. “It’s our insurance policy, and it turns out that the governor [Ritter] was very wise to take that policy out, and we’re set to be protected in a manner that the vast majority of states won’t.”