Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Friday reinstated a year-long “time out” on road building on more than 58 million acres of public lands in 39 states, including more than 4 million acres in Colorado.
“While the courts continue to wrestle with roadless policy, I will continue to work with the USDA Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas on our National Forests,” Vilsack said in a release. “Renewing this interim directive reflects President Obama’s commitment to protecting our forests by ensuring that all projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny.”
The roadless debate has been waged in courtrooms across the country virtually from the moment President Bill Clinton ordered sweeping protections for inventoried roadless areas toward the end of his administration. The Bush administration quickly tossed out the Clinton Roadless Rule and allowed states to petition for their own roadless rules.
Only Colorado and Idaho followed that path, with former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens initiating the Colorado Roadless Rule petition and current Gov. Bill Ritter continuing a course of action that actually protects more acreage than the original Clinton rule but, according to critics, allows too many exemptions for logging, coal mining and ski area expansion. Vilsack is currently considering the controversial Colorado Roadless Rule.
Vilsack first imposed a moratorium on road building last year, but earlier this month exempted 21 projects, including the Elk Creek coal mine near Paonia. By re-imposing the so-called “time out” on road building, it appears the West Elk coal mine, also on the North Fork of the Gunnison River near Paonia, will not receive an exemption to build roads for methane venting needed to expand operations – at least for another year. A West Elk representative could not provide comment Friday because of the upcoming holiday weekend.
Environmentalists, displeased with Vilsack’s recent road-building exemptions, were happy with his decision on Friday:
“The renewal of the time out directive is good news,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. public lands program. “Today’s announcement is a welcome reaffirmation of a national policy that helps protect America’s most pristine forests.
“It also reflects the reality that the 1872 Mining Law leaves roadless forests and western water sources threatened by gold, uranium and other mining operations. Reform of the mining law is long overdue, and the Obama administration and Congress should make it a high priority.”