A public-comment period closed Feb. 25 for proposals on new rules that could affect how the U.S. Forest Service manages more than 4 million acres of Colorado land. It marked the latest round in a slugfest that has lasted more than a decade. You could be forgiven for not knowing it was still raging.
President Bill Clinton signed off on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule days before leaving office in 2001, completing a process that took five years and involved comment from 1.6 million Americans.
In theory, the rule would dash the hopes of timber, energy companies and others who wanted new roads on nearly 60 million acres of forest land across the country.
President George W. Bush, alarmed by this theory and others, froze the new rule immediately after taking office, putting the roadless areas in legal limbo.
Trying to give local roadless areas some protection, Colorado formed a group in 2005 to make recommendations to the Forest Service on a state-specific rule. At about the same time, a federal judge reinstated the rule Clinton had set.
So now we have Clinton's rule in place, along with a state process that is on track to replace it. The state-specific rule could end up duplicating the federal protection, but it all has conservationists worried.
Wild Connections, a conservation group based in Florissant, was urging supporters through the Feb. 25 deadline to write Forest Service officials in support of the federal rules. Despite wide support, Michael Rogers, the group's executive director, says Wild Connections' effort will probably lose out.
"The painful reality, I think, is they don't care what the Colorado people think," Rogers says.
The Forest Service had received more than 80,000 comments a few days before the Feb. 25 deadline, and an environmental impact statement detailing possible rules is expected in May.
The Forest Service's Kathy Kurtz, team leader for Colorado's roadless process, expects at least three eventual options, from reverting to protection levels set by the plan for each forest, to choosing between the federal rule and the state's proposal.
Rogers is worried how a state-specific rule could bear on a recently unveiled proposal to build a new ski area on the west side of Pikes Peak, with a hotel and condos planned for a 320-acre parcel now accessible only on a rough dirt road.
Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society, also believes the federal rule is the best bet. The state's proposal, he says, leaves about 10,000 acres around ski-area boundaries unprotected.
After Bush suspended the federal rule, the Forest Service leased some land for oil and gas drilling. Though the leases were put on hold when the federal rule was reinstated, Smith says, it's unclear how the state would handle them.
The process won't end in May. After the draft EIS is released, there will be another three months for public comments.
Land conservation groups, at least, are hoping Colorado residents who want to keep a few more acres wild will tune in when the process picks up again.
"These are our last blocks of untouched acres," Rogers says.