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Locals dominate new state roadless panel

For three members of a new state panel that is traveling Colorado to tackle the roadless area issue, all roads lead back to Garfield County.Jim Lochhead and Steve Smith, of Glenwood Springs, and Russell George, of Rifle, are part of a 13-member Roadless Areas Review Task Force. It will spend much of the coming year hearing from people around the state about how roadless areas in national forests should be managed, and making recommendations to Gov. Bill Owens, who will then petition the federal government on the matter.Garfield County “kind of dominates the membership, doesn’t it?” said Smith.George, the chairman of the committee, said the selection of the three wasn’t based on geographical considerations, but was mere coincidence. But he added that “familiarity is important.” That means this part of Colorado could be well-served when the focus turns to places like the White River National Forest, which, as it happens, is in the middle of preparing a new travel management plan that will determine where vehicles can go.A Forest Service inventory has identified 640,000 acres of roadless areas in the WRNF, including such places as Deep Creek in the southeast corner of the Flat Tops, Thompson Creek near Carbondale, and Red Table Mountain south of Gypsum.Lochhead noted that the nearby Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest recently released its draft management plan.”I think for a lot of different reasons it makes sense to have to this sort of local representation,” he said of the role he, Smith and George are playing on the committee.Smith has been involved for years in the roadless area debate, as a staff member for former U.S. Rep. David Skaggs, D-Boulder, and then for environmental groups. He’s now assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society. Lochhead, a leading Colorado water attorney, is former executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources. George currently holds that job. In that capacity, George had the option of chairing the group or designating someone else in his place.”It’s too important. I wanted to be involved,” he said.He considers management of roadless areas “one of the most important public lands issues out there.”He hopes to help resolve a controversy that dates back decades. Its more recent history includes then-President Clinton seeking to protect 58 million acres nationwide, including some 4 million acres in Colorado. However, his initiative suffered a setback in court, and the Bush administration went a new direction by providing for states to recommend roadless area protections.George appreciates the opportunity for involvement in Colorado at the state and local level.”That’s part of what I’ve been nurturing and supporting for years, is that the lands are here and the people who live here are impacted most by them. The impacts are local, and the decision-making needs to be local,” he said.Smith is glad George decided to chair the task force.”He has such experience at getting diverse people to agree upon things and he does it in such a professional and charming way,” Smith said.As for Lochhead, “he knows all the competing interests and on-the-ground issues, and he really has an ability to quickly kind of process all that and come to an understanding of the bigger picture,” Smith said.George said Smith’s selection is a testament to his credentials and past work.”The nice coincidence is that he’s a friend and neighbor from Glenwood,” George said.George, Smith and Lochhead came to be on the committee through varying means. The state law creating the committee provided for George to chair it. In attempting to give the bipartisan committee varied representation, the law also allowed Owens and various legislative leaders to make appointments.House Speaker Andrew Romanoff appointed Smith. Lochhead was appointed by mutual consent of Romanoff, Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and Owens.”I guess, not being one to turn down a challenge, I accepted,” Lochhead said.He believes the law creating the committee passed in part because he and Great Outdoors Colorado director John Swartout agreed to participate as consensus appointees. While that’s flattering to Lochhead, he said the task ahead of him and other committee members is great. It includes attending meetings around the state and trying to come up with recommendations that at least eight of the 13 committee members can agree on later next year.”I’m not quite sure how we’re going to do it,” Lochhead said.He said the roadless issue is quite complex and generates a lot of emotions, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a roadless area.Said George, “Roadless doesn’t mean no roads. Everything mapped as roadless inventory isn’t without roads.”According to the Forest Service, land can still be considered for roadless designation even if it has routes that can be used by vehicles under 50 inches in width.George’s hope over the next year is to seek public agreement on what areas are roadless, taking advantage of the ample amount of Forest Service information and maps covering that question. “A lot of this stuff has been worked out already in most forests,” he said.From there, George said, the task force can move on to dealing with the much shorter list of areas that are in dispute.That could lead to recommendations about what areas to protect, and which ones to open up to uses such as four-wheeling and logging.George said he wants the group to focus on the land itself, and “not just re-engage in the debate ‘we want more wilderness/we want more multiple use.'”Smith thinks highly of the qualifications of the task force members. “Their recommendations are that much stronger because they’ll be coming from such a diverse, smart bunch of people,” he said.Colorado is the only state addressing the issue through a task force and public hearings, Lochhead noted. Smith said he expects that the upcoming meetings will only confirm how many people support protection of roadless areas. “We will find, I believe, that the great majority of them favor roadless protection,” he said.Better yet, the committee will hear from people intimately familiar with individual forests, Smith said.It heard an earful at its first outreach meeting in Delta. George said probably 400 people showed up. He felt bad because it became hard for everyone to hear the discussion and participate. But he noted that there are other ways for people to be involved, including by mail and a Web site (see related information).”Stay tuned. This is going to be a long year,” he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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