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Colorado Roadless Rule Gets Mixed Reaction

A plan to manage some of Colorado’s most prized national forest lands is being billed as a national model for how states and the federal government can work together even amid the rancorous political climate.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Governor John Hickenlooper to unveil the state’s final Roadless Rule Wednesday at an event outside the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 

“This is a giant step for conservation,” Hickenlooper said. “It was done in a balanced way, it was from the bottom up, we let everybody have their voice.”

Hickenlooper is actually the third Colorado governor to preside over the roadless rulemaking, which began under Republican Bill Owens in 2005 when the Bush Administration overturned a 2001 Clinton ban.

Until recently, Sec. Vilsack had been a staunch supporter of that national rule, which the Obama Administration has defended in various courtrooms around the West. But any speculation that Vilsack would scrap the Colorado draft plan came to a grinding halt in the park Wednesday.

“I believe I can make the case today to the people of Colorado that what we are announcing through our environmental impact statement that’s being published today, is a rule that is, in my view, better than the 2001 Roadless Rule,” Vilsack said.

Included in this conservation plan are some 400,000 acres of forests that weren’t set aside in the original Clinton rule.  It also affords tougher, so-called higher-tier protections for more than a quarter of the total 4.2 million acres of roadless forests in the state. 

"At the end of the day, we came up with a rule that creates greater protections for larger areas, saves jobs and will generate more economic activity,” Vilsack said.

The specific economics Vilsack is referring to involve a pair of exemptions in Colorado’s rule.  One would allow limited ski resort expansions into previously protected roadless forests, another the same for coal mines in the North Fork Valley near Paonia

“Mines are long term operations and must always plan for the future,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.

Sanderson’s group joined the state of Wyoming in a thus-far unsuccessful legal challenge to the 2001 national rule.  In arguing against that rule, Sanderson has said some 1,000 jobs in the North Fork area were at stake.

“What this essentially does is avoid the premature shut-down of those operations and it will preserve the jobs of the coal miners,” Sanderson said.

Reaction from the environmental community was less enthusiastic.  While sportsmen and wildlife groups praised the rule for coming a long way since its inception, others said the plan leaves the door open for more development in pristine forests. 

Groups like the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop pointed out that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver recently upheld the national rule. 

“I think everybody is in agreement that the 2001 rule is the law of the land as of today,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney with the group. 

Hart questioned the need for a state rule, especially one that he said doesn’t measure up. 

Its long-awaited unveiling Wednesday may not actually be the end of the convoluted and often messy roadless saga.  It’s not yet clear what that Tenth Circuit ruling means or doesn’t mean for Colorado’s plan. 

After the announcement Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke only briefly to the legal limbo.

“Our hope is that this finally ends questions about the 2001 rule,” Vilsack told reporters.

That rule has been upheld, tossed out, then reinstated even as Colorado and Idaho have gone ahead with implementing their own plans. 

“And we wanted to respect the work that crossed over administrations, crossed over parties, and crossed over interest groups working together,” Vilsack added.

For now, Colorado’s rule can’t be formally adopted for thirty more days.  The public has one more chance to comment but few changes are expected.         

Editor's note:  Follow this link to read the full rule and accompanying maps provided by the US Forest Service. 


Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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