Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012 7:48 AM
By CATHERINE TSAI
DENVER (AP) -- A final proposal for managing 4.2 million acres of roadless forest land in Colorado includes higher protection for 1.2 million of those acres, with even fewer exceptions for roads, power lines or other development, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press.
The 1.2 million acres is more than double what would've received so-called "upper-tier" protection under a draft proposal.
However, the final proposed rule that Vilsack is announcing Wednesday still would open a tiny percentage of Colorado's 4.2 million acres of roadless forests to potential ski resort expansions and temporary roads for coal mining operations. It also allows for tree-thinning to lessen wildfire threats near homes.
The rule is subject to a 30-day period when people could comment before it's officially adopted, but few changes are expected, Vilsack said.
Former President Bill Clinton approved a rule in 2001 prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest. The George W. Bush administration later opened the door to commercial development on some of that land, but states could petition to protect certain areas.
Colorado officials started crafting a state-specific roadless rule in 2005 after federal court challenges left the fate of the Clinton-era policy in doubt.
Federal appeals courts have since upheld the 2001 rule, prompting some environmentalists to urge Colorado to stick with the national policy instead of using a version the state proposed with input from mining companies, energy companies, ski resorts and others.
"I feel confident in saying this rule is better than the 2001 roadless rule for Colorado," Vilsack said.
While the Clinton-era rule generally prohibits canals, roads and other development from criss-crossing roadless areas, it has some exceptions.
The upper-tier protection that would be given to 1.2 million acres of Colorado's roadless forests includes even fewer exceptions. Roads, oil and gas drilling rigs, power lines or pipelines couldn't be built unless a forest official determines they are needed to fulfill pre-existing treaties or rights, or for health and safety reasons, Vilsack said.
Minerals underneath those acres would be tapped using directional drilling, so no land would be disturbed at the surface. New ditches, telecommunications lines and the like would be allowed through roadless areas only if that route is the best environmental alternative.
"The 2001 rule contained no comparable protection for high quality lands," Vilsack said.
New federal oil and gas leases would prohibit roads on any roadless area in Colorado.
An exception would allow temporary roads on 19,100 acres in the North Fork coal mining area, which would allow for an expansion of Arch Coal Inc.'s West Elk Mine. "That will help save 300 good-paying jobs over the next year and a half," Vilsack said. "This is a finite and specific amount of acres. It cannot be expanded."
About 8,000 acres, or less than 0.2 percent of roadless forest in Colorado, would be available for ski resort expansions, Vilsack said.
"The people of Colorado started this process back in 2005, deeply concerned about protecting what is a critical aspect to quality of life and the economy in Colorado, particularly rural areas of Colorado," Vilsack said. "This has been a collaboration."
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.