February 09, 2006 News » Cover Story

Roadless rage 

Coloradans wrangle over the future of national forest land, but all paths lead to Washington

  • illustration by Patrick O. Chapin

On oversized furry paws, big cats move silently through the deepest reaches of Colorado's national forests.

They bound across frozen meadows, canyons and escarpments, miles away from any human contact. In other words, perfect lynx country.

Since being reintroduced from Canada in 1999, the lynx has learned to prosper in these snowy climbs.

Last summer brought welcome news to state scientists monitoring the 138 cats known living in Colorado: a baby boom of sorts. They found 46 kittens nestled in deep forest dens.

But progress for scientists comes with setbacks. Where stretches of habitat, including Colorado's White River National Forest, intersect roads and highways, the swift and agile creatures can meet with fast-moving fenders.

Nine times in the last six years, one of the rare cats has attempted to cross a road and had its tawny pelt plastered to the ground.

"They're a roadless-dependent species," says John Stansfield, a board member of the Pikes Peak Sierra Club and one of many who cherish the idea of threatened wildlife finding land corridors where they can roam according to their nature.

Hundreds of enviros, including Stansfield, have cast their focus on a high-stakes battle over the future of the kind of land the lynx now calls home.

The subject of all the controversy is the U.S. Forest Service's "roadless" land, a blanket term that refers to more than 4 million acres of national forest in Colorado and 58 million acres nationwide. Roads may exist here, but the agency does not maintain them or allow commercial development on them.

A war of words has raged in corporate boardrooms, ranger stations, the nation's capital and courtrooms across the country over what to do with these areas. They are neither fully protected "wilderness" areas where Congress has banished timber cuts, mining and motorized vehicles nor fully open to development.

In the latest chapter of this battle, the Bush administration has placed these roadless areas in limbo. Each state has until November to request what it would like to make off-limits from road construction, logging, mining and oil and gas development.

Across Colorado, a series of eight public town-hall style meetings that began in November has generated intense citizen participation;meetings where fewer than 100 people were expected have been flooded with more than 500 activists from all sides of the issue. All told, more than 1,000 activists have weighed in so far.

Environmentalists have joined with backcountry hunting and fishing guides in calling for roadless lands to be fully protected, if not increased in size. Meanwhile, off-road motorists and representatives of the timber, mining and oil and gas industries have turned out in force, hoping for the chance to obtain access to many of the contested areas.

A 13-member task force consisting of political appointees from both parties, as well as representatives from state resource agencies and environmental and recreation groups, has until September to distill hundreds of conflicting testimonials and reams of study materials before making a recommendation to the governor.

Bill Owens, who is term-limited this year, will make the final determination by November as to what Colorado will request. It'slikely to be one of the last decisions he'll make before leaving office.

But the final say in what happens to these huge stretches of land ultimately lies with George W. Bush.

Roads permanently halted

The flap over the future of road building in national forests has been mounting steadily since 1964, when the Wilderness Act was signed into law and forest managers began studying land that conceivably could be turned into protected wilderness. This involved creating roadless-area inventories, the first in 1967.

click to enlarge Roadless areas contain many jewels of Colorados - national park system. - COURTESY OF THE UPPER ARKANSAS AND SOUTH PLATTE PROJECT
  • Courtesy of the Upper Arkansas and South Platte Project
  • Roadless areas contain many jewels of Colorados national park system.

Since then, roadless areas have enjoyed a degree of protection by the Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose goal for more than 100 years has been "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run." But, not surprisingly, the areas also have generated competing claims from various groups eager to access the land to create jobs and profit.

The debate has escalated dramatically nationwide over the last 10 years particularly in the American West, with its vast national forests.

Following a massive five-year process involving hundreds of public meetings and comments from 1.6 million Americans, President Bill Clinton slipped a new rule into the Federal Register on Jan. 12, 2001, just eight days before leaving office.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule permanently halted road building and timber cutting on almost 60 million acres of roadless national forest land an area larger than the New England states combined.

"The scope of the roadless rule is breathtaking," says Charles Davis, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has closely studied the changing patterns of decision-making within the Forest Service.

Clinton's rule also proved immediately controversial and was greeted with little support from the Bush administration, which froze it.

Clinton's shaky legacy

Controversy is nothing new when it comes to roadless areas.

Historically, determining how to balance logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and a wide variety of recreational activities with environmental conservation has been the domain of local forest managers.

That changed under Clinton, says Davis.

In 1993, Clinton removed Dale Robertson from a lifetime-tenure post as Forest Service chief and replaced him with a political appointee. This was an almost unprecedented move; for decades, the agency had enjoyed a kind of independence from executive-branch policymaking, Davis says.

The replacement, Jack Ward Thomas, also struck many observers as an unusual pick because he was a wildlife biologist, not a forester. He was known more for studying the spotted owl than he was for multi-use forest management. Thomas shook up the Forest Service by making his office more independent from the agency's rank-and-file.

In his second term, Clinton capitalized on this bureaucratic reshuffling to secure what he hoped would be a part of his environmental legacy by pushing for permanent protection of the roadless areas.

But Clinton wasn't thinking only of protecting wildlife and his own legacy, says an observer who worked in that administration.

"Part of the thinking that went into [the roadless rule] is that development in roadless areas is, far and away, the most expensive type of development [in forests]," says Mark Squillace, director of the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center.

The agency had spent decades building roads, some 80 percent of which are designed mostly for logging, not public use. This galaxy of roads is estimated to be twice as long as the U.S. highway system. Just maintaining it costs big money billions over time that the agency hasn't had for years.

The maintenance backlog for Forest Service roads surpassed $10 billion in 2004, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

In a statement issued that year, the group noted that, "Ending the Clinton-era roadless policy will open up millions of forest acres to road building and increase the backlog, while doing nothing to deal with the existing problem. It's like souping up a car that doesn't have an engine."

The group has estimated that the Forest Service has subsidized timber operations directly by building more than $116 million in new roads since 1998.

click to enlarge Many off-road enthusiasts want to keep the forest open - to multiple uses. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Many off-road enthusiasts want to keep the forest open to multiple uses.

In many financially struggling national forests, such as the Pike/San Isabel in south central Colorado, it just doesn't make any sense to build more roads.

"We've got plenty of roads, and I don't think we're missing for access anywhere," the forest's supervisor, Robert Leaverton, said at a public hearing in Pueblo last month.

"The initiative was as much an economic as it was a conservation initiative," Squillace says.

Bush's backlash

After Bush took office in 2001, he stalled on the roadless rule, filing a series of delays. Meanwhile, a thicket of lawsuits sprang up, filed by timber companies, which had overwhelmingly supported Republicans in the 2000 elections.

Big Timber was joined by a handful of Western states, including Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming, which claimed the rule should be overturned because it violated the 1964 Wilderness Act by creating de-facto wilderness areas without the consent of Congress.

The Bush administration chose not to defend the Forest Service's new rule in court, leaving it up to environmental groups to try to salvage years of work by citizens, agency leaders and the Clinton administration.

A confusing series of court decisions and reversals followed. Loggers and the state of Idaho won the first federal district court battle, when an Idaho judge issued an injunction suspending the roadless rule. Colorado, Montana and Wyoming had supported Idaho's case.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals then overturned the Idaho ruling.

But six months later, in a separate court case in a U.S. District Court in Wyoming, Judge Clarence Brimmer overturned the roadless rule for violating the Wilderness Act. In his July 14, 2003 ruling, Brimmer reportedly characterized the rule as a "thinly veiled attempt to designate wilderness areas," and went on to write that it constituted a "rush to give President Clinton lasting notoriety in the annals of environmentalism."

Meanwhile, Bush's hand-selected team at the USDA began granting exemptions for logging in roadless areas. The first came in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, a move spearheaded by Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist. Next came a request for a 8,173-acre timber operation on burnt-out roadless areas of the Siskiyou National Forest, over the objections of Oregon's governor.

And then, a year after the Brimmer verdict, the big ultimatum emerged.

On July 12, 2004, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman declared that if governors in each state want roadless areas protected, they will need to petition the government to do so by November 2006.

"The main problem is that the [Clinton] rule was struck down in court," says Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., who used to work as a district ranger in South Park, Colo. He adds that the rounds of comments that led to the 2001 rule "did not involve the local states adequately."

The Bush administration finally officially repealed the rule in May of last year.

Embracing the Bush process

Predictably, many environmentalists who supported the 2001 rule were outraged by Bush's decision to reopen the roadless debate and put decision-making into the hands of state governors.

"This proposal put up a smokescreen and distracted everyone from what is really going on the elimination of protection for roadless areas," says Amy Mall, a senior forest policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based National Resources Defense Council.

Indeed, several states have rejected the process outright. The attorney generals of California and New Mexico and the governor of Oregon have sued in federal court, claiming that the Bush administration did not conduct required environmental reviews before scrapping the roadless rule. Other states, such as Washington, have demanded that roadless areas not be reduced.

click to enlarge CUs Mark Squillace says Clintons roadless rule made - economic sense. - COURTESY OF MARK SQUILLACE
  • Courtesy of Mark Squillace
  • CUs Mark Squillace says Clintons roadless rule made economic sense.

Colorado, on the other hand, has embraced the Bush process by passing a state law creating the special task force and setting a deadline for recommendations to the governor.

The chance to cut into in the roadless edifice has emboldened politicians across the West. One such pol, El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, a Colorado Springs Republican, made that much clear at a public hearing attended by about 300 last month in Pueblo.

He began his remarks by ticking off the various off-road motorist groups he belongs to, then boasted of his affinity for riding motorcycles through national forests.

He said that local control over national forests has been declining for decades and "we really resent being dictated to" by federal agencies. Then, he said: "What we need are more, not less, roads and trails."

As he left the podium, some off-roaders began to applaud his comments, only to be countered with loud booing from environmentalists.

"A fast-paced environment'

Bensberg's blunt remarks may have stirred some anger in the packed audience that night, but they made sense to Dennis Larratt, chairman of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition.

Off-roaders currently can ride through most roadless areas. Fearing that they will be locked out if roadless areas become designated "wilderness," Larratt's group has corralled hundreds of activists into action. They fill the task-force meetings, most wearing an orange sticker proclaiming, "MULTI USE."

His group, he says, "is mostly trying to protect its opportunities." Based on the number of vehicle registrations applied for each year, he adds, off-road use in Colorado is increasing 10 percent a year. The Forest Service, in its use plans, should follow suit and make more forest areas available to motorists. "Use public lands for what the public wants."

And although he says he supports wilderness conservation, Larratt is dismissive of the argument that roadless areas need to be protected in the interests of backcountry trekkers and hunters on public land. "We're in a fast-paced environment," he says, "and people just don't go hiking for three weeks in wilderness areas."

A similar argument has come from representatives of both the timber and oil and gas industries in Colorado at the public meetings: Keep national forests open to multiple uses.

One of Gov. Owens' five appointed members on the task force sees the process as a way to sort out the politicized gulf that exists between enviros and multi-use advocates.

"This is a chance for people who argue for greater local input to show they're up to the job," says state Rep. Josh Penry, a Grand Junction Republican currently running for a seat in the state Senate. Before taking state office, Penry was former Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis' Washington chief of staff and supported some of Bush's controversial environmental proposals, including the Healthy Forests Initiative.

Clinton, Penry maintains, "let the genie out of the bottle" by politicizing the roadless issue.

"I would prefer this be done the way it's always been done forest-by-forest management," he says.

"A dirty trick'

Although politicians such as Penry often take swipes at the Clinton rule, many longtime Colorado conservationists note that the roadless rule was fashioned after decades of studying the issue.

One man who should know is the Sierra Club's Stansfield, who as a young man in the 1970s trekked across areas of the state's national forests as a volunteer in the Forest Service's effort to inventory roadless areas. Stansfield says that calling Clinton's rule a political rush job is "a really dirty trick."

"Like the oaks from the acorn," he says, "wilderness areas grow from roadless areas. Without roadless areas, there's no wilderness."

click to enlarge Activist Michael Rogers wants to see more roadless areas - in Colorado. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Activist Michael Rogers wants to see more roadless areas in Colorado.

That's why scrapping the middle-ground protections offered to roadless areas would amount to a crisis in Colorado, he says.

That's a sentiment endorsed by a chorus of hunters and fishermen. "All hunters and anglers benefit from backcountry areas," a report issued last month by Trout Unlimited says. The report finds that fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing contributes $1.5 billion to Colorado's economy and provides tourism jobs. The report cites areas where oil and gas drilling interests want to make inroads into deer and elk habitat, including the HD Mountains roadless area near Durango.

Other high-profile efforts to enhance Colorado's wild character, such as the lynx reintroduction, also could be threatened dulling the impact of some recent success stories.

Many wildlife lovers were thrilled when U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard earmarked $500,000 in this year's Transportation Appropriations Bill to build a wildlife overpass spanning Interstate 70 near Vail. Lynx will join pine marten, moose, deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions and possibly even grey wolves in using the bridge.

"Habitat fragmentation is a major threat," says Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, the group orchestrating construction of the overpass. Three recent lynx deaths along I-70 evoke the more plentiful challenges that will exist within the national forests, she says, if roadless areas are opened up.

And some say the roadless rule already has struck a solid compromise.

"In reality, except for the roadless rule, there's not another management prescription that creates a second tier to wilderness," says Michael Rogers, executive director of the Upper Arkansas and South Platte Project, an environmental group in favor of expanding roadless areas in central Colorado. "Otherwise, it's wilderness or ravage the land."

Part of the challenge in protecting roadless areas, he says, is educating the public about what they are and why they are important. There is "flat-out misunderstanding in the general public," Rogers says.

The Bush administration's process has further confused an already confusing issue. For example, at the task force's first public hearing in the Western Slope town of Delta last November, 500 citizens swamped a meeting room only prepared for 170. The result was chaos, with many people unclear as to who was supporting what.

"We had mountain bikers speaking against us," he says. "And we were like, "Wait a minute, you're with us.'"

The big unknown

Confusion over the debate isn't the only thing making Colorado's conservationists nervous. Gov. Owens, who can shape the recommendation sent to Washington, D.C., is keeping his cards close to his vest.

"You've got a Republican governor not one known for being particularly friendly to the environment," says CU's Squillace. No one honestly expects Owens to protect all of the 2001 areas, he adds.

And the governor, so far, has remained mum about his stance. "At this point, it would be premature to comment on recommendations that have yet to be submitted," says his spokesman, Mark Salley.

After Owens does make the call, his petition will be sent to Washington and considered by another task force this one comprised of 13 members representing a host of interests, including mining, timber and off-roading.

"It's kind of a strange, tortuous process," says CSU professor Davis, who adds that it doesn't look good for roadless advocates. "The deck is pretty well-stacked against the preservation of roadless management. I think the pro-development philosophy of the Bush administration is pretty clear."

States like timber-heavy Washington, which has petitioned to keep all the 2001 roadless areas, have yet to receive response from Washington, D.C.

But environmental activists preparing for the worst may take comfort in the fact, Squillace says, that the issue likely will be tied up in courts for a long time to come.

"I would be surprised if this is settled by the end of the Bush administration," he says. "It may become a last-minute decision, much like [Clinton's] roadless rule, and subject to review by the next administration.

"Almost whatever happens, there's going to be controversy."


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