DENVER – The Obama administration handed environmental groups a rare defeat Wednesday, allowing Colorado land managers to operate under a state-specific roadless rule instead of the national one-size-fits-all policy.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday that the Forest Service has tentatively selected as its preferred alternative the Colorado Roadless Rule, which prohibits road-building on 4.2 million acres of forest but grants exceptions for industry and fire protection.
Construction of temporary roads would be permitted on a small percentage of 3 million acres for logging, mining and drilling activities, as well as for ski areas. Road-building would also be permitted to reduce fire danger in urbanized mountain regions.
At the same time, the Colorado rule bans road construction on 1.2 million acres of land in swaths of forests throughout western Colorado, making even fewer exceptions for power lines and non-water pipelines than under the federal roadless rule.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, who attended Wednesday’s press conference in Denver, had pushed for the Colorado alternative, calling it “a characteristically Colorado achievement.”
“The rule adds landmark protections to millions of acres of our state’s spectacular national forests by incorporating the diverse views of people and businesses across Colorado,” said Hickenlooper. “The rule enhances all that makes Colorado special while at the same time providing a measure of flexibility that supports local economies and ensures communities can take steps to protect themselves from threats of wildfire.”
Tom Troxel, Executive Director of the Colorado Timber Industry Association sounded a more cautionary note.
“While the forest plans are the best place to make decisions about management of national forests, including roadless areas, the Colorado process is infinitely better than a national ‘one size fits all’ rule,” said Troxel, “We hope the Administration will now turn its attention towards the catastrophic bark beetle epidemic that is devastating Colorado’s forests.”
The rule, now at the Final Environmental Impact Statement stage, is expected to be confirmed after a 30-day comment period.
The Colorado Roadless Rule was heavily favored by state land managers and business interests. Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, which was a party to the lawsuit challenging the national rule, said in a statement that the “more than 1,000 mine workers who sought to lose their jobs under a federal rule . . . thank the Forest Service for its decision.”
“The Colorado rule is the right choice for Colorado,” said Sanderson. “Out of more than four million acres affected, the Colorado rule will allow for limited mineral development on about 19,000 acres of land essential to continued mining in Gunnison and Delta Counties, which account for more than 40 percent of the state’s coal production.”
Fighting against the Colorado rule were environmental groups, who said the state’s more flexible plan would leave roadless areas subject to industrial encroachment. After Wednesday’s announcement, a half-dozen environmental groups urged the Obama administration to extend the tighter upper-tier restrictions to the exempted 3 million acres.
Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski of Denver said his organization opposed the agency’s decision, even though the protections for the 1.2 million acres in the upper tier represented “a step forward.”
“[T]he Colorado Rule still contains a loophole that allows coal companies to bulldoze roads on 20,000 acres of roadless forests and meadows, and it permits logging in remote areas far from communities,” said Zukoski. “The Colorado rule leaves nearly three million roadless acres vulnerable to more road-building than was allowed under the 2001 national roadless rule. So taken on balance it is a step in the wrong direction.”
The decision makes Colorado one of just two states to adopt its own roadless rule instead of following the more restrictive Roadless Area Conservation Rule enacted by the Clinton administration in 2001, which encompasses 58.5 million acres nationwide. The other state, Idaho, finalized its roadless rule in 2008 under President George W. Bush.
Former Colorado Govs. Bill Owens and Bill Ritter had also favored a state-based roadless rule, but its chances of winning federal approval appeared to plummet when President Obama assumed office. Vilsack said the decision was based on an effort to balance Colorado’s conservation and economic needs.
“When finalized, this rule will provide a lasting commitment for the protection of roadless areas on our national forests, areas vital for water conservation, wildlife and for outdoor recreation,” said Vilsack. “Colorado’s roadless areas are also important for economic growth and development, providing opportunity for tourism and job development in rural communities.”