FORESTS:

Colo. submits final plan for roadless protections

The state of Colorado today unveiled its final plan to guide management of 4.2 million acres of roadless lands within the state's 11 national forests and submitted it for federal approval.

Revised from earlier versions, the state petition includes an updated inventory that protects more than 400,000 roadless acres missed in 2001, elimination of a loophole that would have allowed construction in roadless areas, and flexibility for community wildfire protection, ski slope expansions and coal mine operations, said Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

Due to the changes, the Agriculture Department will need to re-examine its environmental analysis of the proposal, the state said. Because of the number of significant changes, the Forest Service has signaled that a revised draft environmental impact statement will need to be prepared in the coming months.

The petition drew immediate opposition from some environmental groups.

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 in 2001. Colorado began crafting its roadless rule under former Gov. Bill Owens (R).

A state task force originally 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. Last August, the state released a revised version to protect an additional 160,000 acres of national forest and eliminate new roads for grazing (E&ENews PM, Aug. 3, 2009).

Since the close of a state comment period in October, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources has incorporated more than a dozen significant changes into the petition, the state said.

"This is simply a better rule for Colorado," Ritter said. "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 state rule closes a loophole in the 2001 rule that renders federally designated roadless areas vulnerable to major construction projects, and it bans road-building for any future oil and gas leasing, the state said. It also provides the opportunity for communities adjacent to roadless areas to propose fuel reduction projects within a half-mile of their boundaries, but limits opportunities for projects up to one and a half miles from their boundaries, a change from the previous version.

Also under the rule, roadless acres representing 0.2 percent of the inventory would become available for the expansion of ski slopes within 14 existing ski permit boundaries. Three coal mines in the North Fork of the Gunnison Basin would be allowed to drill methane vents to expand existing mines into an area equivalent to 0.5 percent of the inventory. The two exceptions would result in the potential for activity in 30,000 acres of the roughly 4.2 million acres, the state said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Colorado petition provides "strong protections" for roadless areas and commended it for proposing that 250,000 acres be granted a higher level of protection under this petition than afforded under the 2001 rule and indicated that number could be increased.

"As the Forest Service prepares a draft environmental impact statement for this petition, I have asked that the agency analyze the potential of adding significantly to the number of acres receiving a higher level of protection than the 2001 rule," Vilsack said in a statement. "I'm confident that working with the Governor and with the public, we will craft a final rule that is, on balance, at least as protective of roadless areas -- and preferably more protective -- than the 2001 Roadless Rule."

The Wilderness Society called on the Obama administration not to accept Colorado's proposed roadless rule.

"Rather than accept a state-specific rule that we don't need, we encourage the Obama administration to implement the national rule protecting some 58 million acres of national forests, including over 4 million acres in Colorado," said Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Colorado office of the Wilderness Society. "We believe the administration can do so in a way that accounts for the unique characteristics that make national forests in Colorado special."

Click here to read the Colorado roadless petition.

Click here to read Gov. Ritter's roadless rule letter to USDA.

Click here to read a comparison of the 2009 draft petition and today's final version.

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