Revised roadless rule petition draws praise, barbs from environmental groups

The long-awaited revised petition for a Colorado roadless rule was finally submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday, drawing some immediate praise from at least one conservation group closely following the arduous process, as well as some condemnation.

The original petition was first drafted in 2006 and then analyzed in focus groups and meetings with stakeholders around the state for more than two years. Based on that input, a draft of how Colorado wants more than 4 million acres of largely roadless federal lands managed was released in August of last year.

Revisions since August include an “upper tier” of protection for more than 257,000 acres of particularly high-value public lands; a restriction of fuel-reduction projects around communities endangered by the mountain pine bark beetle epidemic to a half mile radius; a prohibition against road building for oil and gas leases; and a requirement that public land managers must consider impacts to native cutthroat trout when reviewing projects on more than 100,000 acres of roadless land.

“Gov. Bill Ritter made several key changes from the initial December 2006 petition and the August 2009 draft that make this proposal a good approach for our forests, and one that Environment Colorado supports,” Matt Garrington, program advocate with Environment Colorado, said in a release.

The Ritter administration opted to continue the petition process launched by Gov. Bill Owens when the Bush administration threw out the 2001 Clinton roadless rule and allowed states to draft their own rules. Idaho was the only other state that submitted a petition, and the “upper tier” concept was borrowed from that plan.

“This is simply a better rule for Colorado,” Ritter said in a release. “Our roadless areas will get stronger protections and we will get the targeted flexibility we need to address Colorado’s unique circumstances, such as the pine beetle epidemic, the ski industry and Western Slope coal mines.”

The Ritter administration also proceeded because of still-pending legal challenges to the original Clinton rule, which could leave Colorado with no protection at all. However, some scientists and conservationists still oppose the level of road-building exceptions that remain in the Colorado rule.

Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. public lands program, cited scientific support for the Clinton rule and expressed disappointment in the Obama administration’s support of the Colorado rule, particularly because of road-building exceptions for expansion of coal mines along the North Fork of the Gunnison.

“Governor Ritter’s proposal would allow major new mining and drilling activity in Colorado’s backcountry, threatening water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and sustainable economic growth,” she said in a release. “We hope the administration will reconsider this direction.”

The Pew Environment Group favors an overarching Clinton-style national rule to patchwork state regulation.

Even Garrington admitted the Colorado plan is unclear on the issue of so-called “gap leases” for oil and gas drilling that were approved in the period after the Clinton rule was tossed out by the Bush administration.

“The Colorado roadless rule is silent on the issue of leases issued between 2001 and the adoption of this rule,” Garrington said. “While we believe these leases to be illegal, the ability for the Ritter administration to address the gap leases within the context of a state petition is unclear.”

Environment Colorado wants Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to protect the roadless areas in those “gap leases” from road building activity.

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