Scientists ask Obama to back national roadless rule

A map of roadless national forest lands in Colorado.
A map shows a broad overview of roadless areas around the state.

Conservation experts claim the Colorado rule  is an ‘artful dodge’ with too many loopholes; state officials say their plan meets unique local needs

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A panel of conservation scientists and a former deputy forest service chief said Wednesday morning that Colorado’s version of a roadless rule puts valuable ecosystem services at risk by creating a “virtual grab-bag of potential development projects” on roadless national forest lands in the state.

Speaking in a teleconference, the scientists disputed the Colorado claim that the state roadless rule protects more roadless acres than the national version of the rule, which is still caught up in legal limbo. They called on the Obama administration to reject the Colorado version and to stick with the national rule.

At stake is the future management of about 58 million acres of national forest land nationwide and 4.2 million acres in Colorado (about 60,000 in Summit County).

For a list and maps of the roadless areas in Summit County, click here. Visit the U.S. Forest Service national roadless rule web site here.

At the same time, a group of more than 500 scientists sent a letter to the Obama administration asking the Forest Service to uphold the the national rule.

“The effect of building roads through roadless areas extend beyond the road itself,” said Colorado State University’s Barry Noon. “Roadless areas in Colorado are characterized by steep slopes and erosive soils, and the unfortunate consequence is that road construction is a permanent transformation of the landscape.”

“Large blocks of forests protect watersheds and biodiversity, while their destruction massively contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate disruption,” said Duke University’s Pimm. “It is essential that we keep these forests intact and not sacrifice the ecosystem services they provide for the short-term profits of special interests.”

Read background on the court cases and development of the state rule here.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources roadless rule web site is here.

“My concern with the Colorado petition is that it reflects commercial interests,” said Jim Furnish, former deputy Forest Service chief who helped develop the 2001 roadless rule.

Furnish characterized the state version as an “artful dodge,” saying that state officials created new terminology and concepts for the definition of roads that open more loopholes for logging, coal mine expansions and pipeline construction.

Colorado officials said their version of the rule meets the need for flexibility to address specific issues in the state, including wildfire mitigation efforts near communities. They have the backing of some — but not all — conservation groups.

“This is simply a better rule for Colorado,” Governor Bill Ritter said in a statement accompanying the state petition. “Our roadless areas get stronger protection and we get the targeted flexibility we need to address Colorado’s unique circumstances – addressing community wildfire risk due to the pine beetle and protecting West Slope coal and ski jobs.”

A legal analysis of the Colorado proposal, prepared for the Pew Environment Group, concludes that the state plan would open “significantly greater amounts of Colorado’s remaining roadless areas to tree-cutting, road construction, and continued mineral development than the national rule adopted by the Forest Service in 2001.”

Of special concern to the conservation advocates are a set of so-called gap leases for oil and gas development on 70,000 acres of roadless lands that were sold after 2001. According to the legal analysis, those areas would remain open to new roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, are open to tree- cutting, road construction, and linear construction zones under the proposed Colorado rule.

Colorado officials say the national rule could hamper efforts to reduce the risk of wildfires near towns and neighborhoods, and that the state version provides options for creating fire breaks and other forest projects to protect residents and infrastructure.

But the legal analysis suggests that the Colorado rule gives foresters too much flexibility to determine whether a logging activity will maintain one or more roadless area characteristics over the long term, and whether it reduce wildfire hazard to a communities and municipal water systems.

As part of the planning process for the 2001 national rule, the Forest Service considered the merits of national direction as opposed to local decision making, and concluded that if left to local management decisions, roadless areas could be incrementally reduced.

“The 2010 proposed Colorado Rule is responsive to the kinds of resource development pressures that are felt throughout the western states.The Forest Service promulgated a uniform national rule in 2001 in large part to maintain national conservation practices and overcome those kinds of local pressures,” according to the attorneys who studied the Colorado rule on behalf of environmental groups.

More roadless information from the roadless conservation network is online here.

Read the rest of the analysis in a window below.


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