Colorado is trying to figure out how millions of acres of roadless forest land should be protected. And officials are close to finalizing a plan. Yesterday was the last day to submit public comments to the U-S Forest Service on the so-called Colorado Roadless Rule. The proposal has essentially taken about a decade to develop --and it’s been controversial from the start. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus has more.
Reporter Ben Markus: Will Roush stands at the edge of a creek in the Red Mountain roadless area above Aspen. The lush green foliage stands in contrast to the white bark of the aspen trees surrounding the creek -- it’s postcard beautiful.
Roush: Yeah, aspen forests are one of the most incredible, I mean in the fall they’re awesome, you get in the middle of one that’s like nothing but aspen forests and it’s magical.
Reporter: Roush is with an environmental group called Wilderness Workshop. He and other environmentalists say that the Colorado Roadless Rule should make 4.2 million acres completely off limits to development. He says that would make it one of the state’s most important conservation initiatives.
Roush: It’s not just about conservation and habitat protection, it’s about maintaining vibrant economies for our communities and having good municipal water supplies, so in that sense it could be the most important.
Reporter: But, on the flip side the roadless rule could have a devastating effect on Colorado’s oil and gas industry -- according to industry.
Kathleen Sgamma: Not only do some of the areas have potential for oil and gas, but they have high potential for oil and gas.
Reporter: Kathleen Sgamma is Director of Government and Public Affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. She argues that only Congress can establish protected wilderness areas, and industry doesn’t have a problem with the acreage that’s all ready been set aside for protection.
Sgamma: But for other areas, the National Forests, BLM lands that are multiple use, those lands are meant to be productive, so that we can build the wealth of the nation and create jobs and economic activity in rural areas, and this rule is contrary to that multiple use mandate.
Reporter: One of those uses is all terrain vehicle riding. Walt Blackburn of Delta starts up his banana-colored four wheel ATV. He says he rides’s thousands of miles a year in roadless areas. Blackburn is with Thunder Mountain Wheelers, an ATV club. And his group fears that cherished riding trails will be restricted not just by the Colorado Roadless Rule, but by various other proposals that would set federal land aside for special protection.
Blackburn: The user group, the off highway user group is the largest user group out there, and they keep reducing and reducing and reducing the riding area to where you’re goin’ be riding around in your garage.
Reporter: The Colorado Roadless Rule has a long history. In 2001 the Clinton Administration developed a national version that covered more than 60 million acres across several states. And while that’s been tied up with court challenges, Colorado started working with the Feds to craft a rule to cover the state’s 4.2 million acres.
Ted Zukoski: The whole purpose of the roadless rule is to say we are losing our roadless lands by nibble by nibble by nibble, like a salami, it’s being carved up one slice at a time.
Reporter: Ted Zukoski is with Earthjustice. He supports a Colorado rule that has the same high level of protection the original Clinton one did. But the State and Forest Service prefer one with certain exceptions for things like coal mining and fire management.
Zukoski: That is a problem, we feel that the other alternatives carve out a number of loopholes that are damaging to some tremendous roadless areas.
Reporter: But Bob Randle, Deputy Director of the State’s Department of Natural Resources says those exceptions are necessary to protect some of the state’s business interests and especially homeowners from wildfire.
Randle: What has, one of the primary changes in Colorado’s forests since 2001 that the 2001 rule doesn’t take into account is we have several million acres of standing dead trees.
Reporter: Mostly due to an epidemic beetle-kill. And he says forest managers need to be able to get in there and clear some of those trees. Now that the public comments are in, the rule will probably be finalized by end of this year or early next year. Randle didn’t want to lay odds on whether or not the Colorado Rule would also eventually be challenged in court.
Randle: These days when you deal with natural resource management it’s hard to predict whether or not something will be challenged in court.
Reporter: And that’s why, he says, they tried developed a Colorado rule that will enjoy the broadest possible support.
[An aspen grove in a roadless area near Asen - photo: Ben Markus]