Twenty years ago, the Clinton administration made a rule that protected Colorado’s forests. Following feedback from 1.6 million Americans, the regulation, which protected from “road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting, ” safeguarded 58.5 million acres in our national forests, including more than 4.4 million acres right here in our state. Known as the Roadless Rule, this important tool has ensured that Colorado’s wildest and most awe-inspiring spaces wouldn’t suffer from traffic, vehicle noise pollution, or water pollution from vehicle oil and grease.
Beyond that, avoiding road construction means that there can be no industrial timber harvesting. And, without that large equipment, our forests grow naturally, with different aged trees growing near each and undergrowth thriving. The larger the roadless area is, the more uninterrupted habitat there is for wildlife, particularly important for species that prefer a larger range. We’ve seen this in Colorado where prime locations for backcountry have thrived for hiking, climbing, fishing, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing because of this rule.
This is important for Coloradans because more than 149 million visitors used national forests in FY2019 and nearly half of all visitors came from within 50 miles of those public lands. That means locals’ full enjoyment of these natural spaces are, in part, dependent on this rule. Whether you’re heading off with fishing poles, hiking gear, or a backcountry permit, this rule means you can truly and fully lose yourself in nature for a couple hours or a couple days.
Unfortunately, the scope of the Roadless Rule is currently under attack. Because it is a federal rule and not a law, presidential administrations and states can propose changes. Recently, the Trump administration did just that, deciding to remove 9.2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska from the Roadless Rule’s protection. Now, this breathtaking area is under the threat of logging and road building.
While an administration change is imminent, President-elect Joe Biden can’t reverse this rollback with an executive order. Instead, the Forest Service will need to begin a new rulemaking process to reinstate the rule. In the meantime, the Tongass will be open for road-building activity.
So why does what’s happening way up in Alaska matter to us in Colorado? Because if it’s happening there, it can happen here.
Aurora is within 50 miles of Arapaho National Forest. In the more than 350,000 acres of roadless areas, hikers might come across a moose in a willow thicket, or a three-toed woodpecker on a lodgepole pine.
This forest begins from Never Summer Mountains in the north and reaches toward Mount Evans in the south, drawing millions of people every year to cross-country ski, hike, snowshoe, or mountain bike. The Colorado River begins here with creeks and streams flowing through the forest. You can gaze upon James Peak and see the alpenglow from the forest at sunset. Efforts must be made to make sure that not only the Tongass, but also special outdoor spaces right here in our state remain pristine.
To that end, Environment Colorado’s national organization, Environment America, has joined Alaskan tribes, southeast Alaskan small businesses, and a coalition of environmental groups to sue the Trump administration in an attempt to stop roads and logging operations from moving forward. We are also calling on President-elect Biden to order an immediate pause on all logging operations in old growth forests.
That said, in the longer term, Congress must pass the Roadless Area Conservation Act. Both Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper should be leaders on this issue and support efforts in Congress to convert the Roadless Rule into law. This would protect it from political winds and enshrine it along with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act as a staple of America’s commitment to protecting our health and wild places.
The Roadless Rule has saved wildlife, preserved clean water sources, and provided the stage for thousands of hours of recreation and outdoor endeavours — both here in Colorado and across the country — for the last 20 years. We must keep it that way for generations to come.
Eric Timlin is the Public Lands Associate for Environment Colorado