Washington, D.C., OKs Colorado roadless rule

4.19M acres to be protected; Hermosa area is largest section

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed the Colorado Roadless Rule on Monday, seemingly bringing to a close more than a decade of debate about the state’s backcountry forests.

The rule puts 4.19 million acres of remote forests off limits to development and road-building in 363 separate roadless areas, the largest of which is north of Durango in the Hermosa area.

It has been a long time in the making, spanning the terms of three governors and three presidents.

The rule makes Colorado only the second state, along with Idaho, to complete a separate roadless rule. The rest of the country is working under a 2001 rule adopted by former President Bill Clinton.

President George W. Bush threw out Clinton’s rule and encouraged states to write their own.

But courts later reinstated the Clinton rule. Last October, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it against a challenge by the state of Wyoming, making the 2001 rule the law of the land in most of the other states.

Conservation groups fought hard against the Colorado rule, which originally included exemptions for ranching, natural gas and oil, coal mines, ski areas and logging. The rule went through several rewrites during the years, and conservation groups now support it.

“We recognize the need for flexibility to deal with issues like fuel reduction around communities,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, in a news release. “But the new rule pairs that flexibility with stronger protections for Colorado’s native trout heritage and its best backcountry lands. It strikes the right balance for Colorado.”

The rule still includes exceptions for a few coal mines and ski areas, plus fire safety. But supporters point to several improvements on the 2001 rule, including an updated map that adds 400,000 new acres and throws out 460,000 acres that no longer had roadless characteristics.

The rule also designates 1.22 million acres as “upper tier,” where protections against development are even more stringent than the 2001 rule.

jhanel@durangoherald.com