Vilsack appreciates ‘unique situation’ driving Colorado on roadless rule wildfire mitigation

DENVER — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday gave the strongest indication to date that the draft of Colorado’s roadless rule, which allows road-building exemptions for wildfire mitigation in national forest lands, will at least be closely considered as the Obama administration moves toward a comprehensive national rule.

The 2002 Hayman fire. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Speaking at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science during the announcement of a public-private partnership to restore public lands scorched in the 2002 Hayman fire, Vilsack told The Colorado Independent in an interview that the Centennial State’s efforts to lift federal restrictions on building forest roads in order to better contain fires make sense.

“Our first priority is to protect the roadless areas,” Vilsack said of the ongoing odyssey to maintain the roadless integrity of more than 58 million acres of national forest land nationwide. “But I appreciate that Gov. [Bill] Ritter has started a process to build consensus around the issue.”

In 2001, the Clinton administration pushed through a roadless rule that was quickly set aside by the Bush administration, which later allowed states to petition for individual roadless rules based on state agendas. Only Idaho and Colorado went down that route, with Idaho successfully passing its own roadless rule last year.

“As you probably know, the Idaho process developed consensus and has been successful,” Vilsack said. “It’s important to recognize the uniqueness of each situation, that each state is unique and to go forward from that stand point.”

That is more of a nod to the Colorado rule than Vilsack has previously given, and to some degree validates the ongoing efforts of the Ritter administration to protect approximately 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest in the state. Environmentalists have charged that the Colorado rule contains far too many exceptions for logging, water and energy infrastructure, ski resort expansion and energy development.

Colorado Department of Natural Resources officials argue that the 2001 Clinton roadless rule, which is reportedly closer in its protective scope to what the Obama administration prefers, was put in place before the ongoing mountain pine bark beetle epidemic, which has killed nearly 2 million acres of lodgepole pines statewide. They say there needs to be much more road-building leeway in order to thin national forests around ski resorts and other mountain communities.

The Obama administration has indicated a preference for the more restrictive Clinton rule by challenging two previous 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rulings against the Clinton rule.

Vilsack made his comments to The Colorado Independent while standing amid posters of blown-up photos of the Hayman fire and its devastation.

The largest blaze in recorded Colorado history at nearly 138,000 acres, Hayman wasset by federal forestry officer Terry Barton, who was convicted and spent six years in prison. The fire denuded the land, sterilized the soil and filled streams with ash and sediment.

Monday night, some of the state’s top political leaders, together with representatives from Vail Resorts, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, announced the launch of a three-year, $4 million project to restore the South Platte River corridor scorched by the 2002 fire.

Besides Vilsack, other speakers included U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, all of whom praised the restoration project as an innovative private-public partnership that, in endlessly budget-strapped Colorado and across the recession-wracked country, may signal the future of national forest stewardship.

The event was hosted by Vail Resorts, which committed $750,000 to the project over the next three years. CEO Rob Katz told The Colorado Independent that the company was in the business of bringing people to enjoy the beautiful Colorado landscape and so has “a real stake in the environment.”

“We thought, ‘What is the signature program that we can take up and make a difference?’” Katz said. “The Hayman project is just total habitat. This is about forest health and water quality and it serves the broader Colorado community. We could not find a more impactful project to be a part of anywhere in the state.”

The launch of the Hayman restoration project comes on the heels of news that Vail Resorts is pulling out of its wind credits offset program. The company has been a leader in buying wind-credits for the last three years.

“We’re proud of our commitment to the wind-credits program, but when we took that up it was 2006 and climate change was not on the agenda in the same way it is now,” Katz said. “We’re proud of our leadership on the issue. We were number two in the nation in buying wind credits. I think we’re No. 27 now. Vail Resorts doesn’t like to ever fall in rankings, but in this case we think it’s a good thing.”

Vail ski area recently fell to number three in the annual resort rankings issue of Ski Magazine, behind Deer Valley in Utah, and Whistler in British Columbia. Vail typically occupies the top spot in the annual reader survey.

Katz also said that Vail Resorts draws most of its visitors from the greater Denver area and the Hayman restoration project serves that community in a very immediate way because it will restore the watershed in a drainage that supplies water to much of the Denver metro area.

“The [Hayman restoration] protects the climate but it’s also a local project,” Katz said. He acknowledged the PR benefits among green watchers, but added that the environmentalist community would continue to “hold our feet to the fire. And that’s what they should do. We expect that.”

Environmentalists have also been critical of the state’s efforts to build more roads for fire mitigation despite the very real threat of another Hayman fire. Critics say trees should only be thinned near communities and not any deeper into the national forest.

But Vilsack on Monday was commended for taking an “all lands” approach to his job.

“The Forest Service is usually a step child” when compared to farmland in the eyes of the Department of Agriculture, said Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation. “Tom Vilsack is different.”

“Usually these private-public partnerships are about bringing recreation to Americans,” Possiel added. “This time it’s about restoration, and that’s just awesome.”

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