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Environmentalists worry that roadless areas like this one in western Colorado could be open to what officials call "long-term temporary roads" to access natural gas resources under a plan put forward by the state.

Environmentalists Question Roads in Roadless Areas

While the fate of a federal roadless rule protecting millions of pristine acres across the country remains in question, Colorado is moving forward with its own proposal to protect roadless lands across the state.

That proposal is under fire from environmentalists, though, who say it doesn’t go far enough. Among the most vulnerable areas, they say, are tens of thousands of acres in western Colorado, where so-called “long-term temporary roads” could be blazed through roadless areas to reach natural gas reserves.

“In our minds, that doesn’t follow in the definition of roadless,” says Clare Bastable, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club.

Colorado and Idaho are the only two states going forward with their own roadless plans in the wake of reversals and revisions of a federal roadless rule.

That rule has followed a long, winding road itself since the Clinton administration first proposed it. After a series of public hearings, the rule went into effect in January 2001, just before the Bush administration took office. The rule prohibited logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres in 38 states and Puerto Rico.

Wyoming challenged the role, and in 2003 U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, in Wyoming, rescinded the rule. The Bush administration replaced it in May 2005 with a process that required governors to petition the federal government to protect national forests in their states. Many states embarked on their own plans. Since then, a U.S. district judge in San Francisco reinstated the rule, and recently Brimmer rescinded it again. Environmentalists are appealing that decision.

Colorado and Idaho are still pushing forward with their own plans. Colorado’s plan started under Republican Gov. Bill Owens, but his successor, Bill Ritter, and Democrat, has supported it with a few changes. Although it was launched by a bipartisan task force and contained many provisions to protect Colorado roadless lands, environmentalists have assailed it. They say the current language is too weak, and includes too many loopholes.

Those include provisions for roads around ski areas and grazing areas. The biggest concerns, though, center on oil and gas roads. They could be built to access natural gas in 67,000 acres of the White River National Forest and Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forests. Those roads would be allowed to be in place for 30 years before energy companies would be required to revegetate them.

Another 29,000 acres outside the town of Paonia would be open to roads for some three years to access coal reserves.

Ritter, who has dubbed the rules an “insurance policy” meant to protect wild lands across the state if federal rules fail, has submitted the plan to the federal government, which has embarked on a series of public hearings across the state, and is accepting public comment nationally for the first time. Crafted jointly by the state and the Forest Service, the plan is going through a federal draft environmental impact statement process.

At an open house in Glenwood Springs, a town at the heart of the White River National Forest, opponents included one man, in spectacles and brimmed hat, who called himself Teddy Roosevelt.

“I created the White River National Forest and I don’t want to see anybody despoil it by putting in unnecessary roads,” said Roosevelt, also known as Denis Berckenfeldt, of Denver, a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a sportsman’s conservation group.

The group has supported the Idaho plan, which is similar to the 2001 federal plan but excludes some acreage. It opposes the Colorado plan.

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  1. I’m sorry environmentalists but you can’t have your nalgene bottles and completely restrict the petrochemical industry. Seriously. Where do you think almost everything centers on? Not just oil and petrochemicals as energy (though that’s the bulk of it) but plastics for all those super energy efficient cars, bikes, and scooters. Petrochemicals are found in many pharmaceutical products as well.

    We have to make some use of our own vast natural resources if we’re going to survive as a nation, even if tomorrow morning everyone woke up with a new ‘green’ transportation, and enough efficient solar cells and wind turbines to run off the grid (both of which rely heavily on petrochemicals to be manufactured!!) we still need petrochemicals.

  2. I can’t speak specifically of Colorado’s Roadless areas, but in Idaho most of the Inventoried Roadless Areas aren’t roadless. Many of the roads were in use before the Forest Service came into the picture. Most of the IRA’s in Idaho lack Wilderness characteristics and upon review by the Forest Service, “the preferred alternative does not recommend any portion of the IRA for wilderness.” In many cases only one individual or organization recommended a specific IRA for Wilderness consideration in response to the DEIS. The fire management prescription for almost all of the IRA’s is to allow wildland fires to burn and to follow up with passive restoration (that means watch it slide off into the rivers while doing nothing).

  3. My question: Do Colorado’s long term temporary roads disqualify the surrounding areas for U.S. wilderness designation? I hope not. If they do disqualify surrounding areas, shouldn’t we focus on that issue, perhaps instead of the endless, pointless petrochemical vs. environmentalist name-calling?