DENVER (AP) – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects to make a final decision this year on Colorado’s proposed rule for managing 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest land in the state, capping six years of work.
Vilsack said the latest version more than doubles the amount of land that Colorado had suggested should receive higher protection than what’s offered under a 2001 Clinton-era policy. It would affect about 560,000 acres, or about 875 square miles, as opposed to the 250,000 acres suggested in Colorado’s petition.
It would allow for thinning of forests near communities in light of new wildfire threats posed by an outbreak of bark beetle-killed trees in recent years, Vilsack said. “It gives greater flexibility for communities to protect themselves, people and property.”
It also would allow for the drilling of vents near coal mines for worker safety and potential expansions of ski areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was posting Colorado’s proposal Thursday, along with a draft statement of its potential environmental impacts, for 90 days of public review.
“The rule is consistent with the president’s overall support for roadless areas. It also reflects other opportunities that forests need to be used for and tries to balance that,” Vilsack said Wednesday.
The changes come after work from federal officials and public comments from about 200,000 people. The latest proposal also includes an updated inventory of backcountry areas with roadless characteristics and protects headwaters of cutthroat trout streams, the federal department said.
It would change the size of the area protected by a 2001 federal roadless rule that was adopted just before then-President Bill Clinton left office. That had prohibited commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
The George W. Bush administration later opened the door to allowing commercial development on some of that land with a policy that had states petition for protection of roadless areas.
Conflicting federal court decisions have left the fate of the federal rule unclear. A federal judge in Wyoming had repealed the 2001 Clinton-era rule, and an appeal on that decision is pending.
The Obama administration has defended the Clinton-era policy.
Colorado and Idaho are the only states that petitioned the USDA with its own roadless rules.
“These two states reinforce what we’re trying to do with the overall roadless rule: Acknowledge multiple uses, encourage collaboration of various interests, protect roadless areas, and hopefully avoid, if not all lawsuits, as many as possible because we have been responsive to multiple needs and uses of forests,” Vilsack said.
– By Catherine Tsai, AP Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)