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Clinton-era Environmental Rules Increased Wildfire Risks in Colorado

Environmental regulations restricting the construction of forest access roads have limited the ability of the Forest Service to clear combustible brush and trees, adding dangerous fuel to the wildfires that have ravaged Colorado this summer. The so-called “roadless rule,” which was first implemented in 2001 by President Clinton shortly before he left office, restricts and in many cases prohibits local and federal officials from building and maintaining roads that allow firefighters to clear out growth that could instantly become tinder for a new fire.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, regularly referred to as the 2001 roadless rule, was adopted in January of 2001 and classified 31 percent of national forest lands in Colorado as Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA’s). Four of the national forests that fell under the IRA classification did so based on inventories from 1979, four more were classified as IRA’s based on inventories from 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2002.

Homes lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire

President Bush attempted to give more control over roadless areas back to the states by throwing out the one-size-fits-all 2001 roadless rule and allowing states to engage in a petition process in order to promulgate their own rules. Colorado began the petition process in 2005, while litigation against the Bush administration throwing out the 2001 roadless rule was still ongoing.

Colorado’s proposed roadless rule would have allowed for mitigating actions, such as access roads and the clearing of dead or bark beetle-infected trees, to take place.  The presence of dead or dying brush and branches greatly increases the risk of wildfires since the brush material acts as tinder.  The Colorado rule would have also created a tiered system, allowing fewer restrictions in lower tiers. Primary justifications for the Colorado rule included the following:

  • reducing the risk of wildfire to communities and municipal water supply systems
  • facilitating exploration and development of coal resources in the North Fork coal mining area
  • permitting construction and maintenance of water conveyance structures
  • restrict LCZs, while permitting access to current and future electrical power lines
  • accommodating existing permitted or allocated ski areas


While the decisions of the Bush administration, and the fate of the 2001 roadless rule, remained in litigation, the Colorado legislature created a bipartisan task force to draft a plan to mitigate fire danger and preserve the natural beauty of national forest lands. The Colorado rule was first submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture in 2006 by then-Governor Bill Owens, and was later resubmitted with minor alterations in 2007 by Gov. Bill Ritter.

During this time, and continuing until the fall of 2011, the status of the 2001 Roadless rule remained in question. The varying district dourts would decide to impose injunctions against the 2001 Roadless Rule then vacate the injunction, in essence, removing the rule and then reimposing it, depending on which court made the decision. The Colorado rule, initially a fallback plan, was seen as a necessity if the 2001 roadless rule was not applied and unnecessary if it was.

The final answer did not come until October of 2011, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the District Court and vacated the permanent injunction. The 2001 roadless rule was once again the law of the land.

Proponents of the Colorado rule continued to press forward, against the wishes of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

In the spring of 2010, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, along with some Colorado scientists, voiced opposition to the Colorado roadless rule just weeks after the Obama Administration had defended the 2001 Roadless Rule in the Courts. Colorado State University wildlife ecology professor Barry Noon lamented, “road construction is a permanent transformation of the landscape” when advocating against the bipartisan Colorado Rule. This is in contrast to Environment Colorado program advocate Matt Garrington, who said the Colorado Rule is “a measured, thoughtful approach for protecting Colorado’s forests.”

In April of 2010 the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Wilderness Workshop and Colorado Wild, all called on the Obama administration to implement the 2001 Roadless Rule and reject in total the Colorado rule. Steve Smith, the assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society at the time, asked that the Obama administration implement the 2001 rule nationally, “rather than accept a state-specific rule that we don’t need.”

The next spring, while the 2001 rule was still in limbo, environmental groups including the Colorado Environmental Coalition created Colorado Deserves More in order to persuade the Obama Administration to increase the acreage to be included in the more restrictive top-tier category. The groups pointed to an analysis, which they created themselves, that claimed less than 13 percent of the state’s roadless areas would be given the top-tier protection.

At the time, Colorado Deserves More objected to parts of the Colorado Rule which would have allowed temporary roads to be built up to a half mile into the forest to thin trees infected by the devastating bark beetle. They also claimed that the allowance of crews on foot to thin infected trees an additional mile into the forests was unnecessary. Barry Noon claimed that “proposals to harvest bug-infested stands” don’t make sense due to the effects of roads on ecosystems.

In the summer of 2011, as fires ravaged the state of Texas, Republicans in Congress proposed new legislation that would have increased the ability to mitigate against forest fires and increase access for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts. Representative Diana DeGette and the Colorado Environmental Coalition immediately attacked the legislation. DeGette framed her attack by claiming she was sticking up for her constituents while Republicans were “pushing on behalf of special interests” to take away the 2001 Roadless Rule protections entirely. Elise Jones, the executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, echoed DeGette’s rhetoric saying the GOP-backed legislation was “a double threat to Colorado’s national forest roadless areas.”

In the fall of 2011 the fate of the 2001 Roadless rule was sealed and became the law of the land. Jones stated at the time that “the Colorado plan, which had been billed as an insurance policy, is no longer necessary.” She went on to say that our forests deserve the “full protection of the national roadless rule and nothing less.”

As fires began to spark Colorado this year, those who agitated against the Colorado Rule were silent. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Republican, began to question whether the enforcement of the 2001 Roadless Rule was a contributing factor to the conditions that allowed wildfires to spread so rapidly, burning tens of thousands of national forest land and ultimately destroying nearly seven hundred homes. “We will be asking for a full-blown investigation into whether or not roadless policies contributed to the severity of this fire,” Gardner told the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

For his concern, Gardner was met with criticism from Colorado Democrats. Senate President Brandon Shaffer accused Gardner of politicizing the fires, telling the Colorado Independent, “It’s unfortunate that he wants to politicize this fire,” and “there s no room for politicking.” Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio added, “we get this distraction and politicization from Congressman Gardner. This is completely inappropriate; he owes Coloradans an apology.” None of these admonishments voiced when Rep. Jarid Polis received a VIP tour of the High Park Fire Command Center, which is outside of Polis’ district, potentially violating congressional ethics rules.

Gardner, along with Representatives Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn, and Mike Coffman, have banded together in the midst of the tragic Colorado fire season to propose legislation that would increase local control over forest management and wildfire prevention. Lamborn’s office released a statement on the proposal of the Healthy Forest Management Act of 2012 on his Congressional web site. The release summarizes the legislation stating that “By allowing governors, in consultation with county commissioners from affected counties as well as affected Indian tribes, to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for those areas, states can better protect their communities, species habitats, water supplies, and natural areas, and help ameliorate those conditions that lead to unhealthy forests and wildfires.”

This post was originally published at Media Trackers Colorado.

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