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Colorado: Forest Service finalizes roadless rule

4.2 million acres of wild lands partially protected

Is the roadless rule wrangle over?

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The final version of a Forest Service roadless area management rule includes a few concessions to environmental groups, and goes a long way toward preserving natural resources on about 4.2 million acres of roadless lands in Colorado, but may still face challenges because it’s seen by some critics as weaker than the national version.

The rule will be published July 3 in the Federal Register. The final Colorado Roadless rule will be finalized a minimum of 30 days after the Final Environmental Impact Statement is published in the Federal Register.

Specifically, about  9,000 acres of the Currant Creek area were removed from the North Fork mining area based on wildlife concerns. Coal mining was a huge issue for conservation groups in the long-running tussle over roadless area management.

The state version of the rule leaves the door open for more coal mining, as well as natural gas development, both seen as critical to the state’s economy. Since the original national rule was first published in 2001, new energy leases have been issued on identified roadless areas, which is another irritation to conservation groups.

The state rule divides roadless areas into various tiers. On the upper tier areas, with high conservation values, road construction would be probited for  future oil and gas leases, and by requiring a no surface occupancy stipulation on all future oil and gas leases.

The final rule for Colorado also includes exemptions for water development projects.

The Colorado version also includes exemptions for wildfire mitigation. It allows tree cutting and road construction in non upper-tier areas within 0.5 miles from the boundary of at-risk communities, and up to 1.5 miles under special conditions.

Logging is allowed in non-upper tier acres if a significant risk exists to the municipal water supply systems or the maintenance of those systems.

Most conservation groups are still scrutinizing the final language of the Colorado rule, but at least one group is satisfied that the rule will protect backcountry values and emphasizes the need to keep native cutthroat trout habitat healthy and intact.

“Colorado’s anglers and hunters understand the connection between healthy fish and game habitat and their ability to fish and hunt successfully on land that belongs to all Americans,” said Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited’s president and CEO. “That’s why our volunteer members were engaged and involved in the Colorado rule-making process. This rule, while not perfect, sets the bar pretty high, and proves that sportsmen are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to protecting public lands and how they’re managed today, and in the future.”

David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said he’s pleased that the rule added protections comparable or perhaps even better than those offered by the national Roadless Rule, including measures to safeguard habitat for Colorado’s native cutthroat trout.

“We recognize the need for flexibility to deal with issues like fuel reduction around communities,” Nickum said.  “But the new rule pairs that flexibility with stronger protections for Colorado’s native trout heritage and its best backcountry lands. It strikes the right balance for Colorado.”

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