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A Brief History of Colorado's Roadless Rule Dilemma

By Lauren Swain

 Forest Road, courtesy of EPA
Photo courtesy of EPA.

Few but the most avid policy wonks can navigate the meandering path leading up to Colorado's current "roadless rule" dilemma. But the story of the rule sheds light on the complex and daunting system that determines whether public lands may continue to exist in their natural state--providing immeasurable value for wildlife, forests, water quality, and quiet recreation--or whether they are forever compromised, while providing short-term profits to a few.

Before President Clinton issued the Roadless Area Conservation Policy directive near the end of his term in 2001, more than 600 public hearings were held and a record 1.6 million public comments were collected. The policy would prevent virtually all logging, roadbuilding, mining, and energy exploitation in 58 million acres of the wildest remaining National Forest Service (NFS) lands. Within weeks after the rule hit the books, President Bush took office and suspended its implementation. Over following months and years, lawsuits and appeals on both sides of the issue have continued to pour in from across the country.

In 2005, Bush issued a new rule allowing states to petition the NFS and submit their own plans for managing roadless areas. Colorado and Idaho were the only states to take advantage of this "loophole" by developing state-specific rules. In April, 2011, after hundreds of meetings, and much political wrangling, Colorado submitted its new draft roadless rule to the Forest Service, and to the public, for review.

Now, let's go back to those federal lawsuits for a moment...

In 2003, a federal court in Wyoming ruled the federal roadless rule illegal. The policy was later reinstated by a California court, and reversed again in Wyoming in 2008. In 2009, after months of review, the Obama administration appealed the Wyoming ruling. Finally, in October, 2011, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the 2001 rule, and reaffirmed their ruling this February. Hence, the issue has returned to our local front pages.

Currently, we await the National Forest Service's final Environmental Impact Statement on the Colorado rule, which may be issued days, or possibly even months, from the time this article is published. The EIS will state whether the NFS will a) allow the Colorado rule to stand as it is, or b) require alterations to the rule, or c) replace it with the federal rule.

RMC Sierra Club Wilderness Chair Alan Apt said, "The Sierra Club, and most other environmental groups in Colorado, feel that any Colorado rule is likely to be far less protective of public lands than the Federal rule, which is the 'law of the land' for the rest of the country."

The 2001 rule would generally increase protections for 4 million roadless acres in Colorado. Some news coverage of the issue has suggested that provisions in the Colorado rule allowing for removal of beetle-killed trees and a special "Tier One" status for high-profile areas, validate exempting Colorado from the federal rule.

"Unlike the 2001 Rule, the Colorado Rule allows much larger timbered bites out of roadless forests," Pikes Peak Sierra Club Wilderness Chair John Stansfield said, "which is neither good science nor wise fiscal policy. The two-tier classification for roadless areas creates huge inconsistencies among national forests. For example, Pike-San Isabel NF has essentially no upper-tier lands, whereas other Colorado forests have tens of thousands of acres."

Roadbuilding in previously roadless lands provides access for more logging, motorized recreation, mining, and energy development. Sierra Club is working at the national and local level to save public lands from the erosion and habitat-divisions that roads can cause, as well as the damaging land-uses that new roads promote.

For a detailed timeline of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Policy, go here.

To advocate for roadless areas in Colorado, please respond to Alan Apt's Action Alert.


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