Politics and forest management don’t mix
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — It’s been so long since former U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck (serving under President Clinton) announced his vision for a national roadless rule that most people have probably forgotten his clear and elegant rationale: Roadless areas are crucial to protecting wildlife habitat, water quality and serve as buffers against invasive species. And, the Forest Service can’t even maintain its existing road system, so why even think about adding new roads.
Since 1998, the rule has been through several political wash-and-rinse cycles, not to mention the legal wringer. As with so many other major land-use decisions (energy development, for example), it’s become and exercise in process rather than a substantive debate about values and science.
In the latest twist, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado democrat, is leaning on the Obama administration to quickly adopt a state-specific version of the rule, “in order to alleviate uncertainty for communities and businesses.”
At the same time, national and state environmental groups are lobbying the administration to reject the Colorado version of the roadless rule and apply the national rule as the law of the land, creating consistency for land managers across all national forests and all 58 million acres of roadless lands. The Colorado rule would apply on about 4.2 million acres.
Since Udall’s letter is an exercise in politicking, it doesn’t give any concrete examples of how the delay has created uncertainties for stakeholders. The Forest Service in Colorado has been managing roadless areas consistently since the national rule was announced.
Part of Udall’s letter reads like a tourism brochure for Colorado:
“These National Forest lands are storehouses for clean water and protecting them also ensures that skiers and hikers have beautiful vistas, anglers have clean streams in which to fish, and hunters have healthy big-game herds. These resources attract visitors from all over the nation and world and are a critical component of our quality of life.”
This is standard boilerplate for Udall press releases, regardless of the issue. Nobody can say that he’s not a booster.
The Senator then goes on to tout the process involved in coming up with the Colorado version:
“Coloradans can and should be proud of this process; hard work, compromise and dedication to transparency produced a compromise in which almost no party got everything it wanted, but nearly all have agreed is fair. I believe this collaborative work deserves recognition … Delays in the adoption of a Colorado Roadless Rule have led to confusion and uncertainty and I urge its approval as soon as possible.”
But does the process justify the end?
The Colorado version of the roadless rule is not a bad thing. Absent a national rule, it would be a great thing for Colorado’s forests, but despite the endless spin about how it’s “more protective,” the fact is that it does (at least in the draft version) leave too many loopholes.
Udall’s letter touts the flexibility of the Colorado version:
“The Rule protects 4.2 million acres while allowing some limited flexibility based on legitimate needs, such as to address forest-fire threats and insect infestations near certain communities, to accommodate ski area management, to continue underground coal production in the North Fork coal mining area, and to access and maintain water and utility corridors.”
This is part of the standard Colorado spin on the rule, but the reality is that the national rule also provides the needed flexibility for management, while providing the national consistency and assurances that Udall is looking for.
What started out as an effort to apply reason and sound science to forest management has become a political juggling act that focuses on process, not results.
The text of the letter, as provided by Sen. Udall’s office:
President Barack Obama
The White House
Dear President Obama:
As an outdoorsman and a Coloradan, I highly value our public lands and the multiple uses they support, including water, timber, minerals and recreational opportunities. I have long believed that the best way to protect our public lands is to work with stakeholders and the public in an open and transparent process to ensure any proposal affecting land use will improve the environment, economy and local communities.
The Colorado Roadless Rule that your team is currently reviewing is a prime example of this process. As you know, the rule has been under development since 2005 and has gone through a painstakingly thorough public process spanning the administrations of three Governors. The Colorado Roadless Area Review Task Force was composed of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, including state and local elected officials, representatives from the ski industry, and the ranching, water law, forest management and environmental communities. Thousands of Coloradans weighed in with their views, and countless stakeholder groups worked together to find common ground.
The state and the U.S. Forest Service ultimately produced a rule that protects 4.2 million acres of Colorado backcountry from development while allowing some limited flexibility based on legitimate needs. Exceptions were allowed to address forest-fire threats and insect infestations near certain communities, to accommodate ski area management, to continue underground coal production in the North Fork coal mining area, to access and maintain water and utility corridors, to control and clean up pollution, and to develop oil and gas on pre-existing leases. Coloradans can and should be proud of this process; hard work, compromise and a dedication to transparency produced a compromise in which almost no party got everything it wanted, but nearly all have agreed is fair. I believe this collaborative work deserves recognition.
Delays in the adoption of a Colorado Roadless Rule have led to confusion and uncertainty and I urge its approval as soon as possible. I appreciate your consideration and look forward to finally having a rule in place that provides certainty to land managers, small businesses and the public.