By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The spin machine for Colorado’s new national forest roadless rule cranked into high gear last week, as state and federal leaders sought to convince the public that the watered-down protections for some of the state’s most valuable lands are equal to, or better than the original national rule.
In a way, the establishment has it easy, because it’s been tough to follow all the twists and turns in the roadless saga — but it’s important to understand some of the background and nuance to make a valid comparison.
You certainly can’t rely on the Forest Service to for the real story in this situation. The agency’s follow-up press release to the roadless announcement touted “widespread support” for rule from conservation groups and quoted snippets of press releases selectively, using sections that praised parts of the rule while leaving out language that finds fault with the Colorado version and calls for additional protections.
It would have been questionable for the national agency to reject the Colorado petition; far better had the state backed away from its rule gracefully, perhaps keeping it in reserve, but when you this far down a planning road, it’s hard to put it in reverse. It’s also telling that the only unqualified statement of support came from the Colorado mining industry.
To give the Forest Service credit, it has provided a detailed and very accessible public online record of the rule-making and its history. All the information is there if you care to look.
Colorado’s newspaper of record, the Denver Post, gave up on trying to delve into some of those nuances in its Sunday editorial on the roadless rule, basically just saying saying, “It’s complicated, but trust us, this is a good thing,” without really ever explaining why. To its credit, the Post did include a link to previous coverage that helps explain the convoluted history.
But the Post also fell hook, line and sinker for one of the key talking points for the new rule — that it gives some of Colorado’s roadless areas more protection than the national rule. This myth of “greater protection” is clearly aimed at deflecting attention from the fact that the majority of the national forest roadless areas in the state will get less protection than they would under the national rule.
It’s hard to see how the state rule can possibly offer more protection, and I haven’t seen that explained anywhere in great detail. The original national rule was elegant in its simple thou-shalt-build-no-roads approach, and well-grounded in the realities of forest ecology and economy.
Instead, the Colorado rule touts limited road-building for specific purposes and flexibility, which can be a scary word, subject to a wide range of interpretation — sort of a “Thou shalt not except” approach. These days, wildfire is the bogeyman, and it’s easy to see how local and state officials could try to play on the public’s fear of fire to stretch the definition of what’s allowed in terms of “preventive” logging projects.
One man’s flexibility is another man’s loophole, and some of the loopholes in the Colorado rule are big enough to drive a truck through, literally, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the agency faces yet another legal test over what might better be called broad exemptions rather than loopholes.
Here’s the deal: Forest roads are one of the most impactful activities on backcountry forest lands, leading to an incredible amount of habitat fragmentation and erosion, and some studies suggest that fires are more likely in roaded areas.
There are already so many existing roads in Colorado that it’s almost impossible to get more than a mile or two away from the nearest one, and the Forest Service is not able to maintain the existing network up to its own standards.
Given those circumstances, Colorado and the Forest Service should have stayed with the national version of the rule, which offers the most far-reaching protections for state’s roadless wild areas.
In German-speaking countries, there’s a word — Extrawurst — for people who aren’t satisfied with the sausage on display in the butcher’s glass case; instead they want a special cut of meat, or an extra slice on their sandwich. It’s not exactly a complimentary characterization, but that’s how Colorado is coming across right now — and what makes us so special?
These are national forest lands, owned by all the people of the United States, and they deserve a consistent national rule that can be enforced across the board.
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