Colorado roadless rule

Forest issue settled at long last

Ever since early 2001, when President Bill Clinton announced his Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the waning days of his presidency, there has been uncertainty about what exactly that meant for the 4.2 million acres of roadless national forests in Colorado. That uncertainty, for better or worse, may have finally dissipated Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Colorado’s own plan for protecting its roadless forests would be allowed to stand. It is about time.

After a multi-lateral series of conversations, processes and court battles, the roadless discussion may have reached its final dénouement with Wednesday’s release of the final environmental impact statement for the Colorado roadless rule. The final rule offers more protections for national forests in the state than the original state-generated recommendations that resulted from a stakeholder process convened by former Gov. Bill Owens to craft Colorado-specific management protocols for roadless forests here. This process was spurred by President George W. Bush’s scrapping of the federal rule in favor of a state-by-state approach. That action, though, has been the subject of a series of court battles that ended most recently with a ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals finding that the original Clinton rule stands — assuming there is no appeal to and conflicting action by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nevertheless, with Wednesday’s announcement, Colorado’s own home-grown management plan will be recognized by the U.S. Forest Service.

What this eye-glazing series of events boils down to for roadless national forests in Colorado is they will enjoy an elevated level of protection than their roaded counterparts, but there will be exceptions to the national rule that allow for some road-building to facilitate energy development in areas where leases are in place, wildfire mitigation in forests near communities, and coal mining and ski area expansion.

These exemptions can — and have been — argued for and against with convincing arguments from conservationists, gas and oil industry representatives, skiing, mining and fire protection advocates, and there are valid points on all sides of the conversation. The national rule would have extended greater protection in each of these areas than the approach generated in Colorado, but there is some merit in considering state-specific issues. The final Colorado rule approved by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attempts to strike a balance between the federal rule’s spirit and the specific concerns raised in Colorado. That is not an easy or expedient endeavor, and all sides of the debate will make some sacrifices.

Despite the final Colorado rule’s potential shortcomings, a decision is welcome and long overdue. Knowing with some degree of certainty what sorts of management prescriptions will govern roadless forests in the state is essential to those seeking approval for various development proposals or fire management strategies. As the process has snail-slithered through various channels, a collective holding pattern has been imposed. After more than a decade, it is time to move forward.

Whether and how the divergent interests engaged in the roadless forest debate will proceed in implementing the Colorado rule will be illustrative of how ready each party is to look ahead rather than stay mired in a battle that is both worthwhile but ripe for resolution. The broad perspective is an important one to maintain in this case: no roads will be constructed on roughly 4 million acres of pristine national forest lands in Colorado. That is no small victory.