VAIL — A small but scary wildfire that broke out in the national forest above West Vail Friday afternoon perfectly underscored the ongoing debate between the state’s Department of Natural Resources and environmentalists over Colorado’s controversial roadless rule.
The blaze was in a roadless area on a steep, densely wooded hillside above two Vail neighborhoods packed with ski lodges, condos and homes in what’s known as the Wildland Urban Interface. And the trees were mostly red and dead lodgepole pines ready to explode into an inferno in the hot summer wind.
Nervous Vail residents feared this was the “Big One” they’ve been dreading — a massive wildfire fueled by the state’s ongoing mountain pine beetle epidemic that is estimated to have killed nearly 2 million acres of trees statewide.
More than 50 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and local fire districts responded on foot, first passing through a 200-yard “defensible space” zone they’ve cleared around town the last several years, then heading up into the parched and mostly dead forest above.
Vail ski area, usually jamming atop the gondola for Friday Afternoon Club, was forced to evacuate the mountain while a helicopter out of Rifle started making bucket drops. Ultimately, though, it was a slurry bomber from Grand Junction that snuffed the fire and kept it to one acre.
Defensible space zones where firefighters at least have elbow room to battle a blaze are critical, said Department of Natural Resources deputy director Mike King, but it’s not enough. And that’s one of the main reasons the state is pushing ahead with its own roadless rule despite mounting pressure on the Obama administration to adopt an overarching national rule for nearly 60 million acres of roadless national forest across the country, including 4.2 million acres in Colorado.
“[Defensible space] by itself in the face of having adjacent to a community standing dead pine trees is not enough to protect the soils and water supplies and community infrastructure in areas like Vail and Eagle County,” King said.
In a revised version of its draft rule first released last year, Colorado is now proposing unfettered temporary road building up to a half mile from communities surrounded by dead and dying trees. From a half mile to a mile and a half, roads must be part of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (as allowed by state Senate Bill 1, which was approved last session) and determined to be high risk as defined in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
That’s simply unacceptable to some in the environmental community. Ryan Bidwell of Colorado Wild, for instance, supports defensible space, but not much more. In previous interviews with The Colorado Independent, he’s said high-value places such as ski areas, parks and mountain communities should be protected, but in more recent interviews he’s said that should not include pushing more than a half mile into the forest.
But Vail and other ski areas want to get more aggressive in thinning and reshaping the existing forest to reduce the fire danger and allow re-vegetation, and now a Connecticut firm is seeking a $30 million Department of Energy grant to establish a biomass power plant in Vail that would convert chipped up dead trees into hot water heat and electricity through a carbon-neutral process called gasification.
Temporary logging roads would in all likelihood need to be built into the Wildland Urban Interface to mitigate fire danger and provide a sustainable fuel source for such a green-energy investment, but the more restrictive 2001 Clinton-era roadless rule wouldn’t allow it.
However, that rule was tossed out by the Bush administration and replaced with the state-specific petition process Colorado embarked on in 2005. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California tossed out the Bush petition process in favor of the 2001 Clinton rule last week, but there are conflicting decisions from 2003 and 2008 in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Colorado, setting aside the Clinton rule, all of which has led to ongoing legal limbo.
“There is no rule in effect in Colorado right now and our forests are subject to all kinds of development potential because they don’t have a higher level of protection in place, and we’re much closer to getting protection in Colorado than they are on the federal rule,” King said.
Rob Vandermark of the Pew Environment Group disagrees. He said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s May directive that all development decisions on roadless national forest lands must be approved by his office provides adequate protection while the Obama administration hammers out a national rule.
“Secretary Vilsack’s interim directive elevated all decisions on any activity in inventoried roadless areas to his desk,” Vandermark said. “We’d expect that he would make those decisions in keeping with Barack Obama’s stated support of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule as a U.S. Senator and as a presidential candidate.”
While campaigning for the White House, then-Sen. Obama had this to say on the roadless issue:
“Road construction in national forests can harm fish and wildlife habitats while polluting local lakes, rivers, and streams. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule — which was made on the basis of extensive citizen input — protects 58.5 million acres of national forest from such harmful building. I will be proud to support and defend it.”
Gov. Bill Ritter’s position is that he supports a national roadless rule but wants the Colorado rule incorporated into it. King said there are other considerations such as the economic health of industries dependant on national forest lands, including the state’s ski industry, oil and gas and mining sectors.
“We have 4.2 million acres of roadless, and the [state] task force originally recommended and Gov. Ritter has reaffirmed that 8,200 acres spread among 13 resorts within existing ski area boundaries that were roadless will be taken out and these ski areas will be given the ability to expand within their permits without some of the constraints of roadless area considerations,” King said, although he pointed out that any such expansion would still undergo rigorous National Environmental Policy Act review.
Small chunks of national forest land would be removed from the roadless inventory at Arapahoe Basin (1,050), Aspen Mountain (50), Beaver Creek (510), Breckenridge (150), Buttermilk (50), Copper Mountain (720), Crested Butte (900), Durango Mountain Resort (90), Loveland, (2,990) Snowmass (80), Ski Cooper (560), Steamboat (180) and Vail (900). But conservationists say the state’s resorts don’t need to get bigger with demand for the sport relatively flat, charging such expansions are merely marketing and real estate plays.
Pew Environment Group spokeswoman Elyssa Rosen said such economic imperatives are all the more reason for a uniform national rule such as the 2001 Clinton rule: “Any state, based on pressures from special interests, could argue that they have special circumstances — exactly the reason national policy was developed for these national forests.”