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Colorado: Roadless rule elicits more than 50,000 comments

A clearing storm reveals the Hermosa Creek drainage, at the heart of the state's largest roadless area, with the distant West Needles shrouded in clouds. PHOTO COURTESY THEO STEIN.

Conservation groups still seeking more protection for certain areas

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — U.S. Forest Service officials say they’ve received more than 50,000 comments on a draft roadless rule that would determine management of more that 4 million acres of national forest land in Colorado.

The comment period ended July 14 after a series of nine meetings around the state and in Washington, D.C. More info on the rule is online here.

“This response is an indicator of how important roadless areas are to the citizens of this state and nationwide,” said said Randy Karstaedt,  the acting deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region.

“The extensive comments from stakeholders and the public will help guide us as we review the proposed Colorado Roadless Rule and work with the Forest Service to finalize it,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director Mike King. “We appreciate the diversity of views from across our state. We want to ensure the rule safeguards our valued roadless areas while also reflecting the broadest range of support from Coloradans.”

The proposed Colorado Roadless Rule provides protection for 4.2 million acres across the state. It also identifies more than a half million acres as upper tier which provides higher level protection than the 2001 Rule.  The rule prohibits tree cutting, road construction and reconstruction, and the use of linear construction zones within roadless areas, with some exceptions to the prohibitions.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with the State of Colorado, will analyze and prepare a response to comments that will be included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).  A notice of availability of the FEIS is expected in late 2011 with publication in the Federal Register of a final Colorado Roadless Rule in early 2012.

Despite the extensive public involvement, conservation groups are rallying their members to urge stronger support for higher-quality roadless areas. The groups released a report on the final day of the comment period showing that not all the top-tier roadless areas are getting the protection they deserve. Visit the Colorado Deserves More website to learn more. The report is online here (pdf).

The report shows that the Obama administration  identified 2.8 million acres (or 66 percent) of roadless areas on national forest lands that qualify for top tier protections — two-thirds of the inventoried roadless areas in the state. Yet the proposed rule would only provide that level of protection to 13 percent, or about 560,000 acres.

The report, issued by Colorado Deserves More campaign, the Colorado Mountain Club, and Wilderness Workshop, calls for top-tier protections for 3 million acres and identifies 10 key areas that deserve those protections, including Hermosa Creek, Priest Mountain/Current Creek, Cochetopa Hills, Pagoda Peak, Bristol Head, Kannah Creek, Turkey Creek, Pikes Peak, Thompson Creek, and Wet Mountains/Tanner Peak.  These areas are critical for Colorado’s wildlife, provide a significant amount of the state’s water supply, and help support a thriving outdoor industry.

“Colorado’s roadless backcountry is a boon to business in the state,” said Craig Mackey with the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group representing outdoor gear manufacturers, retailers and others in the recreation industry.  “Our members not only rely on these areas for their customer base, but also because they provide the lifestyle and ‘real world’ field experience necessary to attract a good workforce and design a successful product.  Expanding the upper tier protections to more of our roadless forests will  ensure  these opportunities and amenities remain intact.”

The report is also asking for the upper tier protections to be strengthened to close exceptions that would undermine the ability to properly protect and manage roadless values on these lands. Key to these changes are including strict No Surface Occupancy stipulations on any future oil and gas activity and prohibiting new transmission and telecommunications lines from carving through Upper Tier areas under an expansion of the ‘linear construction zone’ concept.

“Colorado’s roadless forests deserve strong protections—equal to or greater than the 2001 Roadless Rule,” said Jay Heeter with the Colorado Mountain Club. “These areas offer outstanding backcountry recreation, provide secure wildlife areas, and are the source for much of our state’s water supplies.  This comment period will show, once again, overwhelming support for protecting these important lands and for expanding the upper tier of protection.”

All of America’s national forests except for those in Idaho, which also pursued its own state-specific rule, are currently managed under the 2001 Rule, although it remains the subject of court challenge.  The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering one challenge to the 2001 Rule and could issue a decision at any time.

The Obama administration defended the 2001 Rule before the 10rh Circuit.  But regardless of how the court ultimately decides, once Colorado’s rule is finalized and approved, the 2001 Roadless Rule will no longer apply to Colorado’s national forests, making the need for strong and meaningful protections all the more important.

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