There's still a chance for the public - and the Governor - to weigh in for FULL protection of Colorado's spectacular roadless lands.
Colorado's more than 4 million acres of roadless national forest are at risk in the coming months because of an apparent alliance between our lame duck president, George W. Bush, and Colorado's Democratic governor, Bill Ritter.
President Bush has never made a secret of his desire to gut protections for roadless forests. Upon taking office, he promptly suspended the 2001 Roadless Rule, which limited commercial logging and road-building on 58 million acres of largely undeveloped forest across the country. These areas are refuges for wildlife and provide clean drinking water for cities and towns, President Bush refused to defend the rule in court, and tried to replace it with a non-protective rule of his own. As of today, because of action in the courts by Earthjustice and others, the 2001 Roadless Rule remains in effect outside Alaska.
On the other hand, Gov. Ritter supported protecting roadless areas in his 2006 campaign. His policy paper - "The Colorado Promise" - says (at page 43):
We will protect wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreational opportunities on federally-managed public lands, as well as oppose the sale of federally-owned public lands and development of roadless areas.
In office, Ritter has taken a more nuanced approach. Some might say he backpedaled. He signed on to a petition to "modify" the Roadless Rule put together by his Republican predecessor Bill Owens and a task force set up by the legislature. (Owens, a former oil industry lobbyist, was rarely accused of being a friend of the environment.)
The Owens petition, which Ritter passed on to the Bush administration largely unchanged, would:
- open some roadless areas to be leased for ski areas, coal mining, and mining
- allow new roads to be built for ranchers to access livestock grazing operations
- loosen restrictions on the type of logging that could be done in roadless areas
- create a new, oxymoronic road classification only in Colorado roadless areas, the 'long-term temporary' road, which could be bulldozed and remain in place through roadless areas for decades
In short, the Owens/Ritter petition weakens important protections in the 2001 Roadless Rule to benefit a few industries while damaging lands that protect water quality, wildlife habitat and wide-open spaces. And all the values the petition puts on the chopping block generate jobs, too, and make Colorado a great place to live.
Gov. Ritter has called the Owens roadless petition an "insurance policy" to protect Colorado's undeveloped forests in case the 2001 Roadless Rule is overturned by the courts. But the Bush administration's efforts to undo the rule have failed, and so it has turned to other means - asking states to help it 'modify' these protections. Unfortunately, Colorado, along with Idaho, have taken the administration up on its offer. (The other 36 states with national forest land - many with Republican governors - declined.)
The Forest Service is now taking the ball Colorado gave it and running with it. The agency published a draft rule following the Colorado petition last month. The public can submit comments on the draft until October 23. A few public meetings will be held in the state in the last half of August and early September. Bush hopes to finalize the rule before he leaves office.
With a new president likely to be more environmentally friendly than Bush -- no matter who wins -- it was puzzling that Gov. Ritter appears to have effectively helped Bush put a tombstone atop the 2001 Roadless Rule in Colorado at the 11th hour. The "insurance policy" now looks more like a parting gift to miners, drillers, loggers, and others who are happy to bulldoze new roads and chainsaw the public's forests.
And some Coloradans are none too pleased. A coalition of sportsmen has launched a radio ad and letter-writing campaign asking Governor Ritter to put off pushing for the Colorado petition, and instead to push for stronger protection of the states roadless lands. They are also pushing Ritter in the press.
For the next few weeks, we all have a chance to tell President Bush to protect all roadless areas in Colorado from commercial logging and road building. We also have a chance to tell Gov. Ritter to remember his campaign promise to protect Colorado's nature heritage and wildlife habitat, and the economy that relies on clean water, clean air, wildlife, and amazing scenery.