FORESTS:

Colo. releases revised roadless plan

The state of Colorado today released a revised version of its proposed roadless rule that would protect an additional 160,000 acres of national forest and eliminate new roads for grazing.

The revisions come in response to public comments on a rule proposed in July 2008 to guide management of 4.1 million acres of roadless lands within the state's 11 national forests. Public comments on the new version will be accepted through Oct. 3.

Colorado and Idaho are the only two states that embarked on a process the Bush administration put in place to petition for roadless protections. A national policy on roadless areas, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of federal land nationwide, has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office. Colorado began crafting its roadless rule under former Gov. Bill Owens (R).

In a letter accompanying the revised rule, state Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Mike King said that after the comment period, Colorado will consider making additional adjustments before finalizing its recommendations to the Agriculture Department.

"Colorado recognizes that the state rule will be considered in the context of the ongoing national discussion about protecting roadless areas," King wrote. "Colorado also feels that the Colorado rule will ultimately provide a strong, durable conservation framework that is consistent with the Obama administration's policy goals and is tailored to address the unique conditions in Colorado."

In May, the Obama administration announced that it would take a one-year delay on making any long-term decisions on the controversial Clinton-era roadless rule. Instead, the Agriculture secretary for the next year will have sole power to make decisions on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all the areas covered by the 2001 rule.

Continuing a process begun by his Republican predecessor, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is asking for a state-specific rule. A state task force recommended opening about 300,000 acres to development -- including new roads for wildfire protection, utility facilities and minerals development -- while keeping more than 4 million roadless acres off-limits to energy development.

In the past year, state officials and the Forest Service have updated the state's roadless inventory to add approximately 160,000 acres of high-quality roadless areas. The state is also proposing changes that it says will better balance roadless areas' conservation with other public priorities, including the need to protect communities and water infrastructure from wildfire risk.

Environmental, hunting and fishing groups had asked for a delay on the Colorado rule. Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. John Salazar, both Colorado Democrats, supported opening the plan to further public comment.

While praising the extended comment period, hunters and fishers today said there are numerous deficiencies in the state recommendations that would leave backcountry fish and wildlife habitat vulnerable to harmful development. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said specific problems include expanded exceptions for power-line corridors and water projects sited in prime backcountry big-game habitat and native trout fisheries. The group also said the Currant Creek area, known for elk and mule deer hunting, remains open to coal mining and that broad exceptions for timber cutting could negatively affect Colorado's world-class roadless area hunting destinations.

"The draft Colorado roadless rule takes managerial discretion to a new and troubling level," Forrest Orswell, a TRCP field representative, said in a statement.

Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program, also criticized the new proposal. "Our initial review indicates that Colorado's draft plan offers even less roadless protection than the controversial proposal introduced last year," she said in a statement. "The Colorado plan would open some of the Rocky Mountain West's best backcountry and pristine watersheds to mining, oil and gas development, logging and road-building."

Tom Troxel, executive director of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, said his group will study the proposed changes especially to boundaries and areas included as roadless. "We've just got to take some time and look at the maps and study the methodology of how they did that process," he said.

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