Scientists blast Colorado roadless rule even as Udall backs wildfire provisions

Some key Colorado politicians seem to like the state’s controversial roadless rule – submitted last week to the Obama administration – but a lot of scientists and environmentalists clearly aren’t convinced.

Colorado’s petition to the federal government to accept the state’s plan for managing more than 4 million acres of roadless national forest land contains road-building exemptions for coal mining, ski area expansion and logging to reduce wildfire danger.

Conservation groups want the Obama administration to reject the Colorado petition and make the 2001 Clinton roadless rule, or a modernized version of it, the law of the land. That rule was quickly tossed out by the Bush administration and tied up in court for years.

State officials argue that the full scope of the mountain pine bark beetle epidemic that has killed more than 2 million acres of lodgepole pine trees in Colorado and Wyoming was still relatively unknown in 2001 and that temporary logging roads are needed to thin dead and dying forests.

One concession of the plan submitted to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last week was to take the road-building exemption in and around communities down from a 1.5-mile radius to just half a mile. That’s still too deep into the woods, some experts say.

“If the goal is to protect homes, I would focus the creation of the defensible space very locally. I know of no evidence that would argue that it needs to be more than a mile or beyond 40 meters for that matter,” said Dr. Barry Noon, a professor of wildlife ecology at Colorado State University.

“I have a cabin, for example, in the Roosevelt National Forest, at 8,600 feet, that’s surrounded by a lot of dead lodgepole, and I’m simply going to thin my forest out to about 100 feet.”

But wildland firefighting crews on the Western Slope wouldn’t mind have a little more elbow room to battle blazes in and around towns, pointing out that a fire in Glenwood Springs a few years ago jumped Interstate 70 and the Colorado River. In Vail, firefighters are trying to clear a 150-foot buffer zone around the entire town.

“Localized treatment of bug-infested stands makes sense to me,” Noon said. “What doesn’t make sense to us is the proposals to harvest bug-infested stands or thin them at broad spatial scales, and particularly if doing that requires the building of new roads. There is an extensive scientific literature documenting the negative effects of roads on ecosystems.”

Sen. Mark Udall told the Colorado Independent he backs the state rule, which was crafted in a laborious process that began during Republican Gov. Bill Owens’ administration and was continued by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

“I support the roadless proposal that the governor and the previous governor and a team of citizens from across the political spectrum have designed,” Udall said. “Not everybody agrees with every single element in the roadless plan, but I would like to see it applied to Colorado so that we can protect those landscapes that are roadless for their water and air and wildlife values.”

Asked specifically about a recent report co-authored by Noon and concluding that beetle-killed forests aren’t necessarily more susceptible to wildfire, which is mainly driven by drought, Udall said mountain communities and Front Range water supplies are clearly in danger.

“Those studies are certainly worth considering and drought certainly plays a role in the potential for wildfire, but at the same time when you have standing trees that are all dead, particularly before they cast all their needles, you’re really playing with fire if you let them stand in close proximity to communities or reservoirs or water treatment systems,” Udall said.

Udall has introduced the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, which would provide more funds to the Forest Service to mitigate the fire danger posed by the bark beetle epidemic.

State Rep. Christine Scanlan (D-Dillon), whose district includes some of the counties hardest hit by the beetle-kill outbreak, praised Ritter’s plan for dealing with the wildfire danger head-on.

“Colorado industries that depend on development in wilderness, such as mining and skiing, would be equally ravaged were this proposal to completely prohibit development in roadless woodland,” Scanlan said in a prepared statement.

“Gov. Ritter’s proposal resolves these conflicts by allowing limited expansions to meet pressing needs for beetle response, ski slope expansion and coal mine operations. This proposal ensures that all animals – both those who live in the woods and those who merely work or relax there – can fully appreciate Colorado’s natural splendor.”

Dr. Stuart Pimm, chairman of Duke University’s Department of Conservation, disagrees wholeheartedly. He sent a letter to the Obama administration late last year urging a reversal on the apparent federal acceptance of the Colorado plan.

“Large blocks of forests protect watersheds and biodiversity, while their destruction massively contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate disruption,” Pimm said. “It is essential that we keep these forests intact and not sacrifice the ecosystem services they provide for the short-term profits of special interests.”

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