Future of roadless areas in limbo
By Gail Binkly
Keep roadless areas roadless. That was the message delivered by a majority of speakers at a meeting of Colorado’s Roadless Area Task Force on a wintry night at the Tamarron Resort north of Durango in December. Dissenters, however, said roads should be allowed where needed and complained that roadless areas are tantamount to highly restricted wilderness areas.
The 11-man, two-woman task force was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens and certain members of the state legislature to help decide the fate of Colorado’s 4.4 million acres of roadless public lands.
On the San Juan National Forest, recognized roadless areas include nearly 150,000 acres in the Hermosa Creek area near Durango and roughly 20,000 acres in the pristine HD Mountains where extensive natural-gas development is planned.
“These are real places that are valued by real people,” Mark Pearson, executive director of the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, told the task force.
He described some of the San Juan’s most significant roadless areas: Fish Creek on the West Fork of the Dolores, with extensive wetlands; Blackhawk Peak, the backdrop to Rico; the vast Hermosa area near Durango; the HD Mountains, “the last tiny sliver of the San Juan Basin that has not been exploited for natural-gas extraction”; the San Miguel area between Molas and Lizard Head passes, and Treasure Mountain south of Wolf Creek Pass, habitat for lynx.
The HD Mountains were mentioned by numerous people at the gathering. Lying south of Highway 160 between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs, they constitute the last roadless lower-elevation ecosystem on the San Juan, according to the SJCA.
However, they have also been targetted for natural-gas drilling under existing leases, a plan that has proven enormously controversial.
Bill Vance, a rancher representing the HD Mountains Coalition, said he owns a 360-acre ranch in the heart of the HDs and has grazing leases in the area. He said building roads and pipelines among the steep, rugged, highly erodable slopes would cause erosion that would “choke up our ponds and irrigation systems, myself and neighboring ranchers.”
How to comment
In addition to comments at meetings, Colorado’s Roadless Area Task Force is taking written comments. Send them to The Keystone Center, ATTN: Roadless Areas Review, 1628 Sts. John Roads, Keystone, Colo. 80435, or go to www.keystone.org/html/roadlessareas_task_force.html and look for the link to the public comment form.
“I feel our water rights are in danger from this,” he said, citing concerns about methane seeps and possible contamination of groundwater. He urged the natural-gas companies to use horizontal drilling to reach their leases under the steep roadless area.
Bayfield Mayor James Harmon also urged the task force not to allow drilling in the HDs, and supported the use of alternative energies instead. “Woody Guthrie didn’t write, ‘This land is made for industry’,” he said, quoting a popular song.
But Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, a consortium of energy producers and service providers, did not want restrictions placed on roadless areas that would hamper oil and gas development.
She said all roadless areas should remain open for multiple use. “Any further restrictions on natural-gas development in the HD Mountains will constrain the supply of natural gas for consumers and run contrary to existing leases,” she said.
She said restrictions would cause “this valuable resource to be left in the ground.”
Roadless or wilderness?
“Roadless is de facto wilderness,” she said, a theme that was repeated by several others. “We do not support the concept of roadless identification.” However, officials with the publiclands agencies said there is a definite distinction between a roadless area and a wilderness area.
Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest supervisor, explained that of the 1.9 million acres of land in the San Juan National Forest, approximately 415,000 acres are in designated Wilderness Areas, where motorized and mechanized uses (such as bicycles) are forbidden.
The term “roadless,” in contrast, is just a description and does not delineate how an area should be managed or what uses should be allowed. That is what the task force is trying to decide.
On the San Juan, approximately half a million acres have been tentatively inventoried as roadless. Such areas are usually at least 5,000 acres or greater, Stiles said, and contain no authorized roads wider than 50 inches or built for full-sized vehicles.
However, other motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles and ATVs may be allowed, as well as mechanized vehicles such as bicycles, Stiles said. “You can have snowmobiles, oil and gas development, timber harvest, mining, things like that,” he said.
Statistics provided by the agency say that 44 percent of the roadless inventory is open to snomobiles, and onethird has motorized trails.
Thurman Wilson, assistant San Juan Public Lands Center manager, explained that the most recent survey done by the San Juan National Forest, which is working on a new management plan, found that about 18 percent of currently roadless areas are under a type of management prescription where new roads are likely to be built.
However, Stiles said, “Most of the 32 roadless areas inventoried so far, it appears, will continue to be managed in a way to minimize disturbance.”
A $10 billion backlog
Many of the speakers at the Dec. 9 meeting, however, weren’t content to sit back and hope that roadless areas remain that way. They urged the task force to manage the state’s areas as they would have been managed under the 2001 Clinton Roadless Rule, which essentially closed 58.5 million acres of national-forest land across the country to road-building. President Bush rescinded that rule and said it was up to the states to decide how to manage their roadless areas, so Colorado created the task force to make recommendations to the governor.
In the final days of his administration in January 2001, President Clinton signed a rule that virtually halted road-building, logging and development on 58.5 million acres of national-forest lands considered worthy of special protection because of endangered species or sensitive habitats.
The rule was immediately controversial, and at least nine lawsuits were filed against it. About 97 percent of the affected land lies in 12 states, all in the West. The 58.5 million acres constitutes nearly one-third of the 191 million acres managed by the Forest Service nationwide.
Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule prohibited road construction and road reconstruction on the affected lands, but made exceptions for measures to protect human health or safety from imminent dangers such as fires or floods; for certain federal highway projects; for mineral developments on existing leases; and for resource protection or restoration.
Logging for commodity purposes was likewise banned, but harvesting of small-diameter timber was allowed if it would improve certain roadless-area characteristics; improve threatened or endangered species habitat; or reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
President Bush, who initially claimed to support the roadless rule, eventually revoked it, replacing it with a process allowing individual governors to help design roadless plans specific to their own state. States were given 18 months to petition the federal government with a roadless proposal.
If a governor does not make a petition to be involved, the task of deciding the lands’ management will fall to the Forest Service. Petitions must be submitted by November 2006.
A federal advisory committee will have 90 days to review completed petitions and advise the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. The USDA has six months to decide whether to accept each petition and begin notice and comment rule-making. The state-specific plans will be subject to public review and National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
The Secretary of Agriculture makes all final decisions on the rules.
La Plata County Commissioner Wally White, who said he was speaking only for himself, told the task force that “the ongoing attack on public lands by the current administration is really inexcusable.”
He said 90 percent of the comments concerning the Clinton Roadless Rule from Colorado were in favor of preserving roadless areas, and added that because the U.S. Forest Service already has a $10 billion road-maintenance backlog nationwide, it makes no sense to build new roads on national forests.
Montezuma County Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer, however, had a different view.
“I’m glad these issues are back in the hands of the local people,” he said. “I think the people here can make these decisions a lot better than somebody in Washington.” He said the county’s other commissioners concur.
Koppenhafer said one of his concerns about roadless areas was how grazing permittees would be allowed to manage their stock ponds.
“If they have a water development in that roadless area, will they be able to go in and clean that pond?” he asked. “If you restrict it so much they have to go through a long-term process (to be allowed to clean the pond) — there’s a short window of time when it’s dry.”
‘Heart and soul’
Koppenhafer’s concerns appeared to be in the minority at the meeting, however, as a motley assortment of environmentalists, hunters and recreationists expressed support for keeping new roads out of the areas in question.
Mike Murphy, owner of T Bar M Outfitters of Durango, said he wants to “maintain the status quo” for land management.
“There are 112 permitted outfitters on the San Juan National Forest, and every one of the San Juan roadless areas is important to them,” he said. “The viability of nearly every outfitting business depends on roadless areas. The people that outfitters serve want to get away from roads. To us these areas represent the heart and soul of this country.”
He added that studies show that as road densities increase, numbers of mature bull elk fall, and he spoke of the unhappiness and frustration hunters experience when they can’t kill a trophy animal.
Murphy also said there are 2,711 miles of system roads on the San Juan National Forest and 1,033 miles of unmaintained roads, many of which are illegal. The current maintenance backlog is $7 million, he said.
“Why build new roads to scar our forests when we are incapable of caring for our nearly 3,000 miles of existing roads?” Murphy asked.
Joe Griffith, representing the Colorado Mountain Club, which includes aficionados of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, said he strongly supports the preservation of roadless areas.
“We here in the West value our public lands for their wildness and their beauty,” he said. “They are also of enormous economic importance.” He said the lands’ value for recreation and tourism “far exceeds what we would receive from extraction, mining and logging.”
He lamented the “draconian budget cuts” public lands have undergone in recent years and said volunteer efforts cannot begin to make up for a shortage of agency personnel.
Jim Goodyear, northeast assistant regional manager for the state Division of Wildlife, did not voice an opinion on how roadless areas should be managed, but noted that when a road is put in, it causes a change in habitat.
“It either fragments, contaminates or eliminates it,” Goodyear said. Among other things, roads help spread noxious weeds and can kill or isolate wild animals.
But Jay Paul Brown of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association said no restrictions on road-building should be put on the areas. “Selfishly, as a rancher, I’d just as soon there weren’t any more roads,” he said. “We pack everything in on mules and so on. But we need to look further than that.”
He said new roads might be needed for reasons of national security, as well as for thinning trees, water development or weed control. Local publiclands managers should make decisions, with public input, about whether new roads are needed, he said.
Sid Snyder, a Montezuma County rancher, agreed. “As more people come onto the forest you need to have a place for them to go,” he said. “We don’t like more people coming here, but we ain’t going to be able to stop them.”
The need for more places for recreation was echoed by Bill Shaw, representing off-highway vehicle users.
“The San Juans have become a major draw, attracting recreationists from all over the world,” Shaw said. “A large portion of those dollars comes from OHV recreation.”
He said a Colorado State Parks survey found that 49 percent of trail users in Colorado are motorized users, a statistic other speakers questioned. Roadless areas constitute roughly 29 percent of the San Juan National Forest, wilderness areas another 23 percent, and special-use areas 3 percent, he said.
“Closing these areas to motorized (uses) would mean closing 55 percent of the forest to 49 percent of the users,” he said.
Instead, there should be more trails, particularly loop trails, built to accommodate OHV users, Shaw said.
Looking for a compromise
But Michael Cochrane of the San Juan Citizens Alliance pointed out that many roadless areas contain trails for motorized uses. In addition, he noted, control of wildfires is allowed in roadless areas, as is grazing.
Pete Turner of Durango said the task force should “look 30 years down the road,” when population pressures will be intensifying. “Roadless acts as a buffer to wilderness,” he said. “Without roadless areas we’ll have to have permits just to get into wilderness areas.”
And Jim Fitzgerald, a former Fort Lewis College professor who lives in the HDs, said that “great big places” quickly become small when roads are put in.
He told the task-force members they will be pressed to come up with a compromise saying that roads should be allowed in at least some of Colorado’s areas, so multinational corporations can make short-term profits.
“No compromise!” he urged.
The task force will be having more public meetings around the state in coming months. The next one is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 6, in Pueblo. The group is also meeting monthly to discuss its findings, but Pearson of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said he doesn’t think that’s enough.
“I don’t think the task force has really grappled with how much work this is going to require,” he said in an interview.
“They’re only meeting for three or four hours once a month. That isn’t enough to deal with the issue.”