Officials still tying up roadless rule loose ends

Creation of state-specific regulation extends past Dec. 5 deadline

At a glance

• State officials still working on Colorado roadless rule.

• Rule governs use of wilderness areas.

• Initial completion deadline set for Dec. 5.

• Rule now estimated to be completed and approved by June.

Proposed changes to a rule that governs Colorado backcountry use likely won't be finalized until after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

And there's no guarantee that alterations won't be overridden by the re-adoption of a previous rule.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources received the green light last month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to postpone submitting final changes to Colorado's roadless area rule, said Harris Sherman, Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director.

"Colorado intends to ask the Obama Administration for expedited review of the Colorado Rule with the expectation that it will be issued within the first three to six months of the new administration," Sherman said.

The initial deadline for finishing the changes was Dec. 5.

However, "There were some loose ends we needed to tie up," said Mike King, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

State officials are reviewing multiple aspects of proposed changes, including boundary adjustments and oil and gas leases issued on roadless areas that are "of questionable legal validity," he added.

Roadless areas include parcels of undeveloped backcountry spanning 5,000 acres or more that don't have U.S. Forest Service roads. Areas adjoining a congressionally designated wilderness region also may be identified as roadless.

These regions usually contain optimum fish and wildlife habitat and can be popular destinations for sportsmen.

Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties combined contain 103,600 acres of designated roadless areas.

Past behind the rule

A complex history surrounds the creation of Colorado's state-specific rules.

Former President Bill Clinton put the rule governing roadless areas across the nation into effect in 2001. A later action by the Bush administration allowed states to create their own rules for governing roadless areas within their boundaries.

Colorado began making a state-specific rule in 2007.

After the state's process got underway, however, the Bush administration's rule was enjoined, meaning it could no longer be put into effect.

The state then converted its petition for Colorado roadless areas to a standard rulemaking request citizens can submit.

Many players, interests

Colorado's rule also has sparked controversy among local conservation groups.

Colorado's state-specific rule can allow construction of temporary roads in roadless areas for removing trees that pose a fire hazard, maintaining utility infrastructure and, in some cases, to explore and develop oil and gas.

Colorado Wild, an environmental organization, has listed what its members think are deficiencies in the proposed rule.

"We didn't think that the draft Colorado rule provided a whole lot of protection for Colorado wilderness areas," said Rocky Smith, Colorado Wild forest watch coordinator.

The proposed rule provides "very liberal allowances" for road construction and oil and gas leases on lands that are relatively pristine, he added.

The U.S. Forest Service heard similar reactions from citizens during a comment period on the proposed rule this fall.

"A lot of people : thought the exceptions were too broad and wanted us to narrow them down in different ways," said Sharon Friedman, strategic planning director for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region.

Colorado's proposed rule wouldn't always work in favor of energy companies, either.

The draft rule wouldn't allow oil and gas pipelines to run through roadless areas, Friedman said, adding that pipelines only could service development sites in the roadless area.

Back to square one?

There's another possible hitch.

"There's also a possibility that the Obama administration in conjunction with a somewhat more environmentally friendly congress would pass a law that would put the 2001 rule back into effect," Smith said.

Even then, however, Colorado could amend the national rule with a state-specific rule, King said.

The possibility that the universal 2001 rule could be reinstated still is "speculative," he added.

From Smith's perspective, continued wrangling about the proposed rule could lengthen an already complex problem.

"I was hoping we'd get this thing done and have some good, strong protection for roadless areas," he said. "But now, it feels like I'll be working on it until I'm dead, even if I live to be 110."

Bridget Manley can be reached at 875-1795 or bmanley@craigdailypress.com

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